The University of Bristol is calling the findings of a Massachusetts General Hospital study “groundbreaking” — namely for its implications for predicting and being able to be more proactive about a young person’s eventual mental health risks.
This research was actually inspired by anthropology, in which researchers have long fund significant insight into studying teeth. Author Erin Dunn, ScD, MPH, explains, “Teeth create a permanent record of different kinds of life experiences.” (Source)
Anthropologists can glean a lot of information about the way ancient people lived through the study of teeth. For instance, poor nutrition or disease can change the way dental enamel forms and lead to stress lines in the teeth during growth. Similar to the way you can look at growth rings in the trunk of a tree and get a picture of the changing conditions the tree lived through, you can make similar conclusions about the growth lines of teeth.
Hypothesis and Testing
Dunn began with the hypothesis that if a mother experienced high levels of psychological stress during her pregnancy, it could be reflected in the baby’s teeth since those teeth are already developing in those early stages.
The study began with collecting baby teeth (primary teeth) donated by parents. (These teeth were those that had fallen out naturally on their own.)
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital were able to collect primary teeth from 70 children. They also gave questionnaires to the mothers, exploring factors such as maternal history of psychological disorders, the quality of living conditions during pregnancy, and levels of social support.
They could then compare the mothers’ answers from those questionnaires to observations in the children’s teeth. Would patterns and correlations emerge?
Dunn says that several clear patterns did emerge.
In each set of baby teeth from a child whose mother had life histories with things such as depression or other psychiatric disorders, and even mothers who experienced anxiety at 32 weeks of pregnancy, the neonatal lines (NNL) of the child’s teeth were far more likely to be thicker.
Conversely, mothers who received significant emotional support during pregnancy and who did not have a history of mental disorders tended to have children with thinner NNLs.
The researchers’ best explanation for this is that mothers experiencing anxiety or depression tend to have a lot more cortisol in their bodies as a stress response. Cortisol interferes with the development of tooth enamel.
Because of these findings, researchers believe that by closely studying children’s teeth doctors may be able to more accurately identify children who have been subjected to adversity in development and may be more likely to experience mental health challenges later in life. Knowing this early allows doctors to recommend various interventions and treatment so that these children live emotionally healthier lives.
Citation For This Research:
Dunn, Eric C. “Baby Teeth May One Day Help Identify Kids at Risk for Mental Disorders Later in Life.” November: Baby Teeth Research | News and Features | University of Bristol, University of Bristol, 10 Nov. 2021, https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2021/november/baby-teeth-research.html.