Nav: Home

Physicists shed light on mysterious tongue condition

March 31, 2015

Physicists from Israel have shed light on the intricate dynamics underpinning a mysterious tongue condition that has been puzzling the medical community for decades.

Known as geographic tongue (GT), the condition affects around two per cent of the population and is characterised by evolving red patches on the surface of the tongue that-- as the name suggests--can have a map-like resemblance.

The red patches appear due to the loss of one of four types of tiny hair-like protrusions, called papillae, which cover the surface of the tongue. Despite extensive research, the exact cause of GT remains unknown.

In their study published today, 1 April, in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society's New Journal of Physics, the researchers performed a number of numerical simulations to closely examine and visualise the development of the condition, and have devised a new way of identifying the severity of individual cases.

It is hoped the research will lead to a practical assessment that doctors can use to diagnose GT, as well as inspire further research to ultimately find out what causes the condition.

The researchers, from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, approached the problem of GT as if it were an "excitable medium"--a system through which a wave of some description can pass across, and which cannot support the passing of another wave until a certain amount of time has passed.

A forest fire is a classic example of an "excitable medium"--a fire can spread through a forest, but it cannot return to a burnt spot until the vegetation has regrown over time.

The researchers' investigation showed that GT can spread across the tongue in two different ways, each of which has distinguishing characteristics that could be used to diagnose the severity of each case.

They discovered that the condition, which typically starts as small spots on the tongue, can continue to gradually expand in circular patterns until the whole tongue becomes affected. Once affected the whole tongue then heals itself.

Alternatively, the condition can develop through the formation of spiral patterns. The researchers' simulations showed that these spirals evolve into regions of the tongue that are still recovering, causing that particular region to be excited again.

Lead author of the study Dr Gabriel Seiden, currently at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, said: "While the propagation of small, circular lesions results in the whole tongue being gradually affected and subsequently healed, the propagation of spiral patterns involves a continuous, self-sustaining excitation of recovering regions, implying a more acute condition that will linger for a relatively long period of time."

"We hope these results can be used by physicians as practical way of assessing the severity of the condition based on the characteristic patterns observed."

Just as the development of forest fires can be strongly affected by external conditions, such as the strength of the wind, the researchers note that conditions surrounding the tongue may also have important consequences on the dynamics of GT.

In their study, they note how GT was observed in a one-year-old boy who developed the characteristic lesions on multiple occasions along the tongue's edge adjacent to growing teeth, implying that the continuous rubbing of the tongue against the gum may trigger the condition.

"Going forward, we intend to collaborate with physicians and dentists who treat GT patients to obtain valuable--and often scarce--empirical data regarding the dynamic evolution of the condition," Dr Seiden continued. "This will allow for further, more quantitative explorations of GT, and may eventually lead to a firmer understanding of what causes the condition."
From Wednesday 1 April, this paper can be downloaded from

Notes to Editors


1. For further information, a full draft of the journal paper or contact with one of the researchers, contact IOP Press Officer, Michael Bishop: Tel: 0117 930 1032 E-mail: For more information on how to use the embargoed material above, please refer to our embargo policy.

IOP Publishing Journalist Area

2. The IOP Publishing Journalist Area gives journalists access to embargoed press releases, advanced copies of papers, supplementary images and videos. In addition to this, a weekly news digest is uploaded into the Journalist Area every Friday, highlighting a selection of newsworthy papers set to be published in the following week. Login details also give free access to IOPscience, IOP Publishing's journal platform. To apply for a free subscription to this service, please email Michael Bishop, IOP Press Officer,, with your name, organisation, address and a preferred username.

The tongue as an excitable medium

3. The published version of the paper 'The tongue as an excitable medium' (Seiden G and Curland S 2015 New J. Phys. 17 033049) will be freely available online from Wednesday 1 April. It will be available at

New Journal of Physics

4. New Journal of Physics publishes across the whole of physics, encompassing pure, applied, theoretical and experimental research, as well as interdisciplinary topics where physics forms the central theme. All content is permanently free to read and the journal is funded by an article publication charge.

IOP Publishing

5. IOP Publishing provides publications through which leading-edge scientific research is distributed worldwide.

Beyond our traditional journals programme, we make high-value scientific information easily accessible through an ever-evolving portfolio of books, community websites, magazines, conference proceedings and a multitude of electronic services.

IOP Publishing is central to the Institute of Physics, a not-for-profit society. Any financial surplus earned by IOP Publishing goes to support science through the activities of the Institute.

Go to or follow us @IOPPublishing.

Access to Research

6. Access to Research is an initiative through which the UK public can gain free, walk-in access to a wide range of academic articles and research at their local library. This article is freely available through this initiative. For more information, go to

The Institute of Physics

7. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society. We are a charitable organisation with a worldwide membership of more than 50,000, working together to advance physics education, research and application.

We engage with policymakers and the general public to develop awareness and understanding of the value of physics and, through IOP Publishing, we are world leaders in professional scientific communications.

In September 2013, we launched our first fundraising campaign. Our campaign, Opportunity Physics, offers you the chance to support the work that we do.

The German Physical Society

8. The German Physical Society (DPG), with a tradition extending back to 1845, is the largest physical society in the world with more than 59,000 members. The DPG sees itself as the forum and mouthpiece for physics and is a non-profit organisation that does not pursue financial interests. It supports the sharing of ideas and thoughts within the scientific community, fosters physics teaching and would also like to open a window to physics for all those with a healthy curiosity.

IOP Publishing

Related Physics Articles:

Challenges and opportunities for women in physics
Women in the United States hold fewer than 25% of bachelor's degrees, 20% of doctoral degrees and 19% of faculty positions in physics.
Indeterminist physics for an open world
Classical physics is characterized by the equations describing the world.
Leptons help in tracking new physics
Electrons with 'colleagues' -- other leptons - are one of many products of collisions observed in the LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.
Has physics ever been deterministic?
Researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Vienna and the University of Geneva, have proposed a new interpretation of classical physics without real numbers.
Twisted physics
A new study in the journal Nature shows that superconductivity in bilayer graphene can be turned on or off with a small voltage change, increasing its usefulness for electronic devices.
Physics vs. asthma
A research team from the MIPT Center for Molecular Mechanisms of Aging and Age-Related Diseases has collaborated with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, France, and Germany to determine the spatial structure of the CysLT1 receptor.
2D topological physics from shaking a 1D wire
Published in Physical Review X, this new study propose a realistic scheme to observe a 'cold-atomic quantum Hall effect.'
Helping physics teachers who don't know physics
A shortage of high school physics teachers has led to teachers with little-to-no training taking over physics classrooms, reports show.
Physics at the edge
In 2005, condensed matter physicists Charles Kane and Eugene Mele considered the fate of graphene at low temperatures.
Using physics to print living tissue
3D printers can be used to make a variety of useful objects by building up a shape, layer by layer.
More Physics News and Physics Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Clint Smith
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at