Your Health: Studying early childhood mental health through baby teeth

For a team of researchers, baby teeth are priceless.
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 12:57 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - If you have a young child, we want to know: how much is a baby tooth going for when the “tooth fairy” visits these days? $1? $5?

For a team of researchers, baby teeth are priceless. The scientists are studying the little pieces of enamel with the hopes of unlocking information about early childhood stress.

Adorable gap-toothed smiles are precious for parents, and a source of inspiration for Boston scientist Erin Dunn.

“I am the science tooth fairy,” Dunn joked. “I am a scientist who collects and studies teeth.”

Dunn and her team at Mass General Hospital want to know if children’s teeth can leave clues of early life stress.

“Similar to the way that trees develop, in terms of leaving behind these incremental records of their growth, our teeth do the same thing,” Dunn explained.

Dunn and her team take donated teeth and slice them so they can look at them under a microscope. These images are magnified, so it’s easier to see lines and changes in width and color.

“We’re trying to see if we can see evidence essentially recorded in baby teeth in terms of these incremental growth marks that might be indicators of early life experiences,” Dunn said.

One of the team’s studies is called Strong. They’ve recruited moms who were pregnant during the time of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing to see if mom’s stress because of the bombing showed up in children’s teeth. The goal is to eventually use teeth as a screening tool to determine if children could use mental health support.

“If we can be able to better identify kids early who’ve experienced these early life stressors, we can then more quickly connect them to interventions,” Dunn said.

The truth may someday be found in the tooth.

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