The Stories in Baby Teeth

The closest we’ve ever come to a real tooth fairy is probably Erin Dunn, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dunn calls herself “the science tooth fairy” to encourage kids to donate their baby teeth for science. She gives the teeth to Felicitas Bidlack, a specialist in tooth development at the Forsyth Institute, an oral health research center, and that’s where the science begins.

What can be learned from studying baby teeth? Quite a lot. Start with X-rays and CT scans, which can measure characteristics like enamel thickness and mineral density. Then cut the teeth open to examine growth patterns that could be clues to physical stressors such as illnesses or injuries, and also look for embedded traces of toxins or pesticides. The idea is that baby teeth can provide clues to events that affect mental health and behavior, especially during early development.

This is because baby teeth begin to form before birth. Cells daily build the tooth enamel layer by layer. “It’s like a clock that starts ticking, and it continues throughout the formation of each individual tooth,” said Tanya Smith, a biological anthropologist at Griffith University in Australia, who studies tooth growth and structure.

As the teeth grow, they reflect the conditions of their surroundings. A dark line in some of the earliest-laid enamel marks birth, then lighter lines record daily enamel growth. Any darker bands signal disrupted development. Also, metals like lead and copper accumulate in teeth and can provide a more consistent record of exposure than snapshot blood or urine tests.

The complication is these stress lines alone can’t show what specific kind of a stressor disturbed tooth development. Nor do they show which pathways in the body link the stressors with the teeth. Finally, many factors are involved and different people can react differently to stressors. Thus, so far such tests aren’t considered conclusive.

Still, If teeth are found to serve as reliable trauma biomarkers in children, the implications could be tremendous.  Teeth could provide the timeline of exposures in the body from the start. After decoding the biomarkers, clinicians could intervene before health issues develop. As Felicitas Bidlack puts it, “There is a beauty to that — how your body keeps a memory and knows the truth.”

For more information, see “The Secret Lives of Baby Teeth” by Jackie Rocheleau at https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22876530/baby-teeth-science-anthropology.

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