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 soon 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 that 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 treatment 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 disorders, and do it as early as possible in life, ”said Erin Dunn, lead author of the study, social and psychiatric epidemiologist at the 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 parents’ production of the stress hormone called cortisol may interfere with cells that produce enamel, which can cause 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. .