Scientists have discovered clear indications that pregnancy and puberty may be recorded in our teeth – which could revolutionize how we monitor the health of past and future generations.
A study of modern donated teeth showed clear “biomarkers” coinciding with growth changes in puberty and pregnancy.
Corinne Feuillatre, a PhD student at the University of Bradford who carried out the study with colleagues in Bradford and Sudan and whose findings are published in the journal, Annals of Human Biology, said: “We have known for a while that we can tell a lot about our diet from the chemicals in our teeth.”
“By measuring changes in these chemicals we can estimate the diet of an individual when the tooth was forming, but we also know that the chemicals are affected by events such as periods of rapid growth or starvation,” said Feuillatre, a registered dietitian with 25 years experience in clinical, public health and research roles. “What we didn’t know previously is that major metabolic events – puberty and pregnancy – may also be recorded in teeth.”
Wisdom teeth (3rd molars) develop from the age of about eight to 23 years and record the protein in the diet as they grow. In eight of the 10 wisdom teeth, donated from the Khartoum Centre for Research and Medical Training, Sudan, Corinne discovered similar patterns of change in the chemicals at the ages that each person would have been likely to go through puberty.
She said: “That’s when I got really excited and realised something was going on there.”
The other two teeth came from people who were known to have lived through a period of famine, possibly suffered from malnutrition and did not show the same biomarkers for adolescent growth.
Corinne also found that in six of the female teeth another significant change in the chemicals occurred after puberty and before the age of 23 which she believes indicates pregnancy. This is consistent with medical histories from Dr Fadil Elamin, of Khartoum Centre for Research and Development, for women who donated wisdom teeth for the study by Dean and Elamin in 2014 which identified changes in growth patterns in teeth during pregnancy.
Further study of a larger sample is required to confirm Corinne’s findings, but her discovery could help archaeologists gain a better understanding of past populations.
Corinne said: “We have very little recorded information on the timing of puberty and pregnancy in the distant past. Using biomarkers such as these could help archaeologists better understand the lives and health of everyday people.”
The former paediatric dietitian also believes her work could lead to better monitoring of children’s health in the future.
She said: “The chemicals we measure in the teeth are also recorded in a person’s hair and nails. In past populations, it’s easy to study the teeth because they are made of such strong material that they often survive when other body parts do not.
“For studying people today, we can use samples of hair and nails, which is a non-invasive way of measuring a person’s health. As they grow at a much faster rate than teeth, we can get a much more detailed dietary history.
“There is the potential that by analysing hair and nails from mothers and babies during pregnancy and the first year of life we could identify those babies who are more at risk of obesity or malnourishment. Intervention programmes could then be introduced early.
“Currently, health professionals routinely measure the baby’s length and weight, but that may not give an accurate picture of a baby’s nutrition. Understanding the relationship between diet and growth could be a very useful way to monitor premature or very small babies.”
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