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A scientific tooth fairy: clues to early childhood mental health

A Massachusetts scientist and her team want to know if children’s teeth can leave clues of early life stress.

BOSTON, Massachusetts — Parents of young children, how much is a baby tooth going for when the “tooth fairy” visits these days? One dollar? Five dollars? Well, for a team of researchers, baby teeth are priceless. Scientists are studying the little pieces of enamel and dentin with the hopes of unlocking information about early childhood stress.

Adorable gap-toothed smiles – precious for parents, and a source of inspiration for Massachusetts General Hospital scientist, Erin Dunn, ScD. Dunn and her team wanted 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,” she explained.

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

Dunn says, “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.”

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 as a result of the bombing showed up in their 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 added.

Dunn and her team are recruiting for several other studies on baby teeth and mental health. They send kits to participants with instructions on how to package the teeth and submit them. More information is available on Dunn's website

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Ann Sterling at ann.sterling@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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