Early Childhood Mental Health: Science Tooth Fairy


BOSTON, Mass. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – 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. The scientists are studying the little pieces of enamel and dentin with the hopes of unlocking information about early childhood stress. Childhood Mental Health

Adorable gap-toothed smiles – precious for parents, and a source of inspiration for Mass. General Hospital scientist, Erin Dunn, ScD.

(Read Full Interview)

Dunn and her team 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,” she explains.

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 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 adds.

Erin 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. There’s more information on Erin Dunn’s website, www.teethforscience.com

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Producer; Kirk Manson, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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REPORT:       MB #5168

BACKGROUND: Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. Significant mental health problems can and do occur in young children. Children can show clear characteristics of anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, at a very early age. That said, young children respond to and process emotional experiences and traumatic events in ways that are very different from adults and older children. Consequently, diagnosis in early childhood can be much more difficult than it is in adults. Prior to COVID-19, CDC found 1 in 5 children had a mental disorder, but only about 20% of those children received care from a mental health provider. Mental health crises are also on the rise. From March 2020 to October 2020, mental health–related emergency department visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those ages 12 to 17 compared with 2019 emergency department visits, according to CDC data.

(Sources: https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health



DIAGNOSING: Warning signs that your child may have a mental health disorder include persistent sadness that lasts more than two weeks, withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions, hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself, outbursts or extreme irritability, changes in eating habits, difficulty sleeping, avoiding or missing school. Mental health conditions in children are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms and how the condition affects a child’s daily life. The evaluation might include a complete medical exam, medical history, family history, timeline of child’s developmental progress, and/or interview with parents.

(Source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/mental-illness-in-children/art-20046577

NEW TECHNOLOGY: The thickness of growth marks in primary (or “baby”) teeth may help identify children at risk for depression and other mental health disorders later in life, according to researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. The researchers believe the findings could 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.

(Source: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/11/baby-teeth-may-help-identify-kids-at-risk-for-mental-disorders/)


Katie Marquedant

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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Erin Dunn, ScD, scientist

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