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        Baby teeth may one day help

        identify kids at risk for mental

        disorders later in life

        Like the rings of a tree, teeth contain growth lines that may reveal clues
        about childhood experiences.

             he team analysed 70
             primary teeth collected from
        T70 children enrolled in the
        Children of the 90s study (also
        known as the Avon Longitudinal
        Study of Parents and Children)
        based at the University of Bristol.
        Parents donated primary teeth
        (specifically, the pointed teeth on
        each side of the front of the mouth
        known as canines) that naturally
        fell out of the mouths of children
        aged 5 to 7.

        The results of this study could one
        day lead to the development of a
        much-needed tool for identifying
        children who have been exposed to
        early-life adversity, which is a risk
        factor for psychological problems,
        allowing them to be monitored
        and guided towards preventive
        treatments, if necessary.

        The origin of this study traces
        back several years, when senior
        author Erin C. Dunn, ScD, MPH,
        learned about work in the field of
        anthropology that could help solve
        a longstanding problem in her own
        research. Dunn is a social and
        psychiatric epidemiologist and an    childhood adversity. Asking people   such as poor nutrition or disease,
        investigator in MGH’s Psychiatric    (or their parents) about painful    can affect the formation of dental
        and Neurodevelopmental Genetics      experiences in their early years is   enamel and result in pronounced
        Unit. She studies the effects of     one method, but that’s vulnerable   growth lines within teeth, called
        childhood adversity, which research   to poor recall or reluctance to    stress lines, which are similar to
        suggests is responsible for up       share difficult memories. “That’s a   the rings in a tree that mark its
        to one-third of all mental health    hindrance for this field,” says Dunn.  age. Just as the thickness of tree
        disorders. Dunn is particularly                                          growth rings can vary based on the
        interested in the timing of these    However, Dunn was intrigued to      climate surrounding the tree as it
        adverse events and in uncovering     learn that anthropologists have     forms, tooth growth lines can also
        whether there are sensitive periods   long studied the teeth of people   vary based on the environment and
        during child development when        from past eras to learn about their   experiences a child has in utero and
        exposure to adversity is particularly   lives. “Teeth create a permanent   shortly thereafter, the time when
        harmful. Yet Dunn notes that she     record of different kinds of life
        and other scientists lack effective   experiences,” she says. Exposure                             7
        tools for measuring exposure to      to sources of physical stress,

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