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Could kids' teeth be a roadmap to diagnosing mental health issues?

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Posted at 11:02 AM, Mar 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-25 14:11:07-04

BOSTON — Sitting at her desk, looking down at a small bag containing an exfoliated molar from the mouth of an 8-year-old, Dr. Erin Dunn sees a world a possibility for the future of treating mental health issues in this country.

"I never expected to be studying teeth," she admitted.

Dunn is a social and psychiatric epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She and her team are exploring new ways to help diagnose and treat mental health issues by focusing on children's teeth.

"The measurement tools we have to capture early childhood experiences are really inadequate," Dr. Dunn said.

Dr. Dunn’s latest study is centered around the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Dr. Dunn and her team are trying to find women who lived in the New England area and were pregnant or had already given birth when those terrorist attacks happened. Their hope is to see if the trauma of the marathon bombing left behind any kind of clues.

"Our teeth are similar in that they permanently record growth marks that might provide clues about what was happening as children were growing and forming starting as early as prenatal life," she explained.

As baby teeth form, they develop microscopic growth marks. Kind of like the rings of a tree. Researchers are hoping to analyze those teeth from around the time of the bombing. They're looking for things like enamel thickness or abnormalities, which could be signs of trauma.

"The idea is that teeth might have these imprints that tell us about our early life history," she added.

Ultimately, Dr. Dunn is looking for the story teeth tell about childhood trauma. Her ultimate hope? Teeth could better predict kids’ mental health issues later in life.

"Someday teeth might be part of the arsenal we’re using to identify kids that have been exposed to issues early on in life."