Baby Teeth Could Help Flag Mental Health Risk

Medscape Staff

November 11, 2021

Growth lines on baby teeth that have fallen out may provide evidence of early life experiences that could affect mental health later on, a new study shows.

What to know:

  • Childhood adversity is responsible for up to a third of all mental health disorders, research suggests, but it is not always possible to identify children who have experienced more stress. A study suggests that baby teeth may be a way.

  • Erin C. Dunn, ScD, MPH, was inspired by anthropologists to study baby teeth. Anthropologists study teeth to learn about past peoples. Experiences such as physical stress, nutrition, and disease can affect how dental enamel is formed, creating growth lines similar to the rings of a tree.

  • With a team of researchers, Dunn analyzed baby teeth from 70 children that were donated when the children were between 5 and 7 years old. They found that increased width of one growth line, called the neonatal line (NNL), seemed to indicate that an infant's mother experienced higher levels of stress during pregnancy.

  • Although the link between NNL thickness and stress is unclear, it could have to do with the production of the stress hormone cortisol or with systemic inflammation.

  • Dunn is hopeful that this and other growth lines could be used to identify children who have been exposed to early-life adversity and lead to improved preventive treatments.

This is a summary of the article, "Baby Teeth May One Day Help Identify Kids at Risk for Mental Disorders Later in Life," published by the University of Bristol on November 10. The full article can be found on bristol.ac.uk.

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