Fitness

Children’s Teeth May be a Strong Indicator of Future Mental Health Issues 

Researchers at Mass General Hospital plan to study the markings on children's teeth who were born around the time of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.


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You probably already know that you can find out a lot about yourself by having your hair, blood, or saliva analyzed. But did you know that your baby teeth may also reveal evidence of trauma that could lead to future health problems?

That’s what Mass General Researchers are setting out to prove by studying the teeth of children born around the time of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The hospital is looking to recruit hundreds of Boston-area women to participate.

The same researchers published a study on Tuesday in Biological Psychiatry showing that the microscopic markings within children’s teeth, much like the markings on a tree as it ages, could be a tool for detecting trauma. This is especially groundbreaking in terms of preventing future health conditions like mental health issues.

Studies show that childhood experiences like abuse, neglect, and living with domestic violence increase the risk of mental illness, depression, anxiety, and heart disease. Throughout childhood, basic community measures can help prevent these problems from developing, and so can having a strong and reliable adult figure present throughout adolescence. But having a reliable way to track signs of future health concerns could help advocates and parents know which kids would benefit most from treatment.

“As a scientist, you are always trying to place bets on what kind of work will make the most impact,” Erin Dunn, an assistant professor at Mass General and lead researcher on the study team, tells the Boston Globe“And how you can develop better tools to prevent mental health problems in the future.”

According to the study, growth marks in baby teeth within the hard enamel surface are recorded daily and weekly, up to about two years of age. For some kids, permanent teeth growth lines are recorded up to age 16. During times of stress in childhood, these markings will look abnormal—they’re even referred to as stress lines. The idea up for future study is whether those stress lines could become a useful diagnostic tool.

Some scientists are wary of how practical the idea is, though. Tanya Smith, an evolutionary biologist at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution who has also studied these dental stress lines, told the Globe that tying traumatic events to specific tooth marks is hard even when she knows the relative timeline.

“I am not pooh-poohing this idea,” she emphasized. “It’s just incredibly hard to do.”

Even beyond the screening possibilities, it’s long been known that teeth grinding in childhood has a strong correlation to anxiety. So it might be wise all around to take a look at those baby teeth, instead of leaving them under the pillow for the tooth fairy.