Baby teeth could reveal if kids will face mental health issues

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The thickness of growth marks in baby teeth may help identify children at risk for depression and other mental health disorders later in life, according to a study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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There aren’t many tools available for doctors to identify children who may face mental health issues later in life. But a new study shows that baby teeth may offer missing clues.

Like trees, baby teeth have growth lines that can vary in size depending on the environment and their parents’ experiences during pregnancy and shortly after birth. Physical stress, including a poor diet or illness, can influence the development of the tooth’s outer shell, or enamel, in a way that thickens the growth lines.

Using a microscope, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed 70 donated baby teeth that fell out of the mouths of 70 children aged 5 to 7. They studied a specific type of growth line called the neonatal line.

The team found children whose parents had a history of severe depression or other mental health issues and those who were depressed or anxious at 32 weeks pregnant had teeth with thicker neonatal lines than other children.

Children whose parents received social support soon after pregnancy were more likely to have teeth with thinner neonatal lines, suggesting thicker lines indicate more stressful life experiences.

Childhood adversity is responsible for a third of all mental health disorders, according to the study published Nov. 9 in the journal Psychiatry.

The researchers say their findings could help the development of official biomarkers of early stressful conditions that could help guide children to preventative treatments for mental health problems before they arise or become serious.

The lack of such tools prevents doctors from properly measuring children’s exposure to stressful conditions. Asking parents about painful experiences can lead to ‘bad memories or reluctance’, leaving healthcare professionals with little to work with to guide patient care.

“[If] we can connect these children to interventions… we can prevent the onset of mental health problems, and do it as early in life as possible, ”said study lead author Erin Dunn, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a press release.

It’s still a bit of a mystery why these neonatal lineages develop, Dunn said, but researchers believe parental production of the stress hormone called cortisol may interfere with cells that produce enamel, which in turn affects the development of growth lines.

Inflammation in the body could also explain the thickened growth lines in children of stressed parents, but more studies are needed to better understand the process.

Children included in the study were enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK between 1991 and 1998. Teeth were analyzed between 2019 and 2021.

Parents filled out questionnaires about stressful events during pregnancy, a history of mental health issues, the quality of their neighborhood, and the level of social support they received, all of which contribute to childhood development. .

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Katie Camero is a McClatchy National Real-Time Science reporter. She is a Boston University alumnus and has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Science and The Boston Globe.


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