Scientists have developed a new computer software system, based on ancient Chinese medicine, designed to diagnose infectious disease by analyzing the appearance of the tongue.
For nearly 5,000 years, the Chinese have assessed the appearance of the tongue as a measure of the body’s physical health -- known as “zheng.” Now, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers have developed software that combines the ancient practices and modern medicine by providing an automated system for analyzing images of the tongue.
"Knowing your zheng classification can serve as a pre-screening tool and help with preventive medicine," said Dong Xu, who heads up the UM computer science department in the College of Engineering. "Our software helps bridge Eastern and Western medicine, since an imbalance in zheng could serve as a warning to go see a doctor. Within a year, our ultimate goal is to create an application for smartphones that will allow anyone to take a photo of their tongue and learn the status of their zheng."
The software, detailed in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, analyzes images of the tongue's color and coating to distinguish between "hot" or "cold" zheng – signals of a person’s overall health.
"Hot and cold zheng doesn't refer directly to body temperature," said Xu. "Rather, it refers to a suite of symptoms associated with the state of the body as a whole."
In Chinese traditional medicine hot and cold zheng can be symptoms of gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining caused by bacterial infection.
For the UM study, 263 gastritis patients and 48 healthy volunteers had their tongues analyzed. The patients were classified by whether they were infected by a certain bacteria, known as H. pylori, and gastritis symptoms.
"Our software was able to classify people based on their zheng status," said study co-author Ye Duan. "As we continue to work on the software we hope to improve its ability."
Duan said researchers envision a day when patients will be able to use the software at home using webcams or smartphone applications to determine their health status.