Dental implants have a long history. The Mayans were probably the first to use dental implants. Archaeological findings show that the Mayans used a kind of embedded implant more that 1400 years ago. A mandible dating to 600 AD discovered in 1931 had three tooth-shaped pieces of shell implanted into the sockets of three missing teeth. Initially it was believed that these shells were inserted after death. However, radiography studies conducted later revealed that these implants were placed when the person was still alive. This indicates that the Mayans were one of the first people to use dental implants.
The main turning point in the field of dental implants came when P. I. Branemark discovered that titanium fuses with bone. Branemark was studying the process of bone healing and regeneration in rabbits. During these experiments, ‘rabbit ear chambers’ devised by scientists at Cambridge were inserted into the femur bones of rabbits. A few months later, when Branemark tried to retrieve these chambers, it was observed that bone had grown into such close proximity with the titanium that it is not possible to remove them. Branemark conducted further studies into this property of titanium and it was confirmed that titanium is an ideal material for devising dental and other implants.
Initially, Branemark considered working on knee and hip surgery. However, taking that fact that the mouth is more appropriate for continued clinical observations into consideration and due to the high rate of edentulism, he chose to direct his studies on dental implants. He termed the phenomenon of the adherence of titanium with bone “osseointegration”. In 1965, Branemark placed the first dental implant into a human volunteer and Gosta Larsson became the first person to have a titanium dental implant.
Over the next 14 years, Branemark continued his research in the field, publishing many studies on the use of titanium in dental implantology. In 1978, he entered into collaboration with Bofors AB to develop and market dental implants. A subsidiary company called “Nobel Biocare” was founded in 1981 with the main focus on dental implants. Till date, more than 7 million dental implants have been manufactured by this company.
Currently, active research is being pursued across the globe to find better materials for making dental implants. Ceramics such as zirconia (ZrO2) are being evaluated for manufacturing dental implants. Zirconium is chemically similar to titanium. In addition, its biocompatability properties are also very similar. The main advantage of zirconia over titanium is that zirconia has a bright tooth-like color which makes the implant blend with neighboring teeth. However, long term studies are needed and results evaluated before zorconia can be used to replace titanium implants.