Examination of Baby Teeth to investigate Mental Disorder in Children
A ground-breaking investigation led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) using data from a world-renowned health study in Bristol discovered that human teeth contain growth lines that may reveal clues about childhood experiences. The team examined 70 primary teeth collected from 70 children enrolled in the Children of the 90s study (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children) based at the University of Bristol. Parents donated primary teeth (specifically, the pointed teeth on each side of the front of the mouth known as canines) that naturally fell out of the mouths of children aged 5 to 7.
The origin of this study comes from Erin C. Dunn, ScD, MPH, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist and an investigator in MGH’s Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit. She had studied the effects of childhood adversity, which research suggests is responsible for up to one-third of all mental health disorders. Dunn is particularly interested in the timing of these adverse events and in uncovering whether there are sensitive periods during child development when exposure to adversity is particularly harmful. Dunn developed a hypothesis that the width of one variety, in particular, called the neonatal line (NNL), might serve as an indicator of whether an infant’s mother experienced high levels of psychological stress during pregnancy (when teeth are already forming) and in the early period following birth. Children whose mothers had lifetime histories of severe depression or other psychiatric problems, as well as mothers who experienced depression or anxiety at 32 weeks of pregnancy, were more likely than other kids to have thicker NNLs. Meanwhile, children of mothers who received significant social support shortly after pregnancy tended to have thinner NNLs.
NNL and other tooth growth marks could be used in the future to identify children who have been exposed to early life adversity. This study enables us to connect with those kids to interventions and can prevent the onset of mental health disorders at the earliest.