What can baby teeth reveal about mental health? According to a ground-breaking investigation, a lot

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  • A study looked at how baby teeth could indicate future mental health disorders.
  • The milk teeth of the participants were collected when they fell out naturally.
  • The mothers of the test subjects were surveyed during and after pregnancy on their mental health.

A new study has found that baby teeth could potentially be used to identify risk for mental disorders later in life.

The study published in JAMA Network Open assessed milk teeth to identify children exposed to psychosocial risk during prenatal (before birth) and perinatal (immediately before and after birth) life.

The researchers focused on primary canine teeth and epidemiological survey data from 70 children. The teeth were collected from children at ages five to seven years. Data were collected from 1 January 1991 to 31 December 1998 and analysed from 1 January 2019 to 10 August 2021.

Mothers completed questionnaires during and shortly after pregnancy, focusing on four factors known to affect child development: stressful events during the pregnancy period; maternal history of psychological problems; neighbourhood quality; and level of social support.

The study authors identified four types of prenatal and perinatal maternal psychosocial factors: prenatal stressful life events; psychopathological history and symptoms; neighbourhood disadvantage; and prenatal and perinatal social support. The researchers chose these factors as they represent prominent determinants of child health during prenatal and perinatal periods.

Teeth are like tree lines

The study found that children exposed to depression or anxiety in utero (in the uterus) had wider neonatal lines, a marker of enamel growth, while children with perinatal maternal social support had narrower post-birth lines. 

The results suggest that the thickness of growth marks in baby teeth may help identify children at risk for depression and other mental health disorders later in life, and might be an indicator of whether an infant's mother experienced high levels of psychological stress during pregnancy when teeth are already forming and in the period immediately after birth.

The researchers likened lines in baby teeth to tree rings, and explained that these lines may reveal clues about early childhood experiences. 

"The thickness of tree growth rings can vary based on the climate surrounding the tree as it forms; tooth growth lines can also vary based on the environment and experiences a child has in utero and shortly thereafter, the time when teeth are forming.

"Thicker stress lines are thought to indicate more stressful life conditions," the researchers said in a statement.

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