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Baby Teeth Offer Autism Clues

A recently released study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has found a connection between prenatal and postnatal exposure to some metals, and autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD. Conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, the study used naturally-shed baby teeth to measure levels of lead, manganese and zinc in children with and without ASD. The study analyzed the teeth of 32 pairs of twins and 12 individual twins to control genetic influences.

To measure the metals, researchers used lasers to cut out thin layers of the tooth’s dentin, much like dendrologists do when they use dendrochronology to date tree rings. By extracting dentin in this manner, researchers can measure metal exposure at various stages of the tooth, and by proxy, the child’s development.

Lead Exposure May Hold a Key
What the researchers found was that baby teeth from the children with ASD had higher levels of lead and lower levels of both manganese and zinc compared to the children who did not have ASD. Even more fascinating, those levels stayed relatively similar throughout the child’s development, with lead levels peaking shortly after birth. Children with ASD were also found to have lower manganese levels both in the womb and shortly after birth. Zinc levels were lower in utero among the children with ASD, but those levels increased dramatically after birth, surpassing the levels of the neurotypical children at the same stage.

"We are really beginning to see just how important a barometer the teeth are to whole-body health," said Wilmington, North Carolina dentist Dr. Michele Simpson. "This study is just one more glimpse into how extremely connected the different systems of the body are to each other."

The authors of the study conclude that autism spectrum disorder and early exposure to certain metals may be linked, but that the key to determining why some children develop ASD and others don’t lie in how the body processes those metals.

Teeth May Offer Future Insight
In addition to the groundbreaking findings regarding ASD, many in the medical community are optimistic about the possibilities that baby teeth may hold in shedding light on other developmental disorders, like ADHD.

"Dentin samples and dental stem cells from shed baby teeth are showing lots of promise in both understanding and treating many different disorder," said Simpson. "A recent study in England used dental stem cells extracted from baby teeth to treat children with autism and even showed improved developmental markers in areas like language and memory. It will be exciting to see what other medical breakthroughs teeth will play a role in in the future."

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