Why Teeth Intrigue Us: A Q&A with Members of the Dunn Lab

Why teeth intrigue us: A Q&A with members of the Dunn Lab

The following is a guest blog post written by researchers in the Dunn Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Over the past few years, my research team has been studying teeth. That’s right, teeth! We have been fascinated by the stories teeth might record about people’s life experiences.  What intrigues us most is the possibility that teeth might provide a new set of clues about our early life experiences, which could ultimately be used to help identify new ways to prevent brain health problems, like depression, and promote brain health.

In these posts, you’ll learn about our recent projects, the team behind the work, and some exciting projects we have in store for the future. We hope these posts will motivate you to reach out to us to learn more. To engage with us about teeth, tweet us @ErinDunnScD. 

So here we go….let’s sink our teeth into this.

In this first post, I do a Q&A style interview with members of my lab who study teeth. Although everyone on Dunn Lab’s “Team Tooth” comes from a variety of backgrounds, they are all united by a passion to learn more about the stories teeth might be able to tell us. Check out below what they have to say.

1. To kick off this Q&A, can you start by telling readers more about you?

Becky Mountain

Becky Mountain

Hi, I’m Becky. I’m an anthropologist who studies how stress impacts our teeth and bones. I have worked on archaeological excavations all over the world, including Spain, Israel, Egypt, Mexico, and right here in New England. I work as a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab, helping out all things teeth-related on Team Tooth.

Olivia Pickett

Olivia Pickett

Hi there! My name is Olivia and I am an undergraduate at Northeastern University studying health science. I’ve been working on Team Tooth since January 2019 and will be continuing on in the lab after graduation in May 2020 as a Research Coordinator.

Mohamed Elebiary

Mohamed Elebiary

Hi, I’m Mohamed and I am a dental research technician in the Dunn Lab. I also work closely with our collaborators based at The Forsyth Institute. My background is in the fields of dentistry, biology, and genetics.

Jamie Chan

Jamie Chan

Hello. My name is Jamie! I’m a clinical research coordinator for the lab’s Team Tooth. I am a recent graduate of Smith College where I studied Neuroscience and researched the effect of anesthesia on zebrafish. I am excited about this new research adventure studying teeth.

2. Is this the first time you’ve worked with teeth? Did you ever imagine working on teeth might be something you would do?

Becky: I have worked with teeth for a number of years as part of my prior research with human remains from archaeological sites. I didn’t ever think they would end up being the focus of my current research, however, as I always thought they were rather boring compared to the rest of the skeleton. I never realized how much potential they have and how much information they can tell us until I started working on my current project.

Olivia: Yes, this is my first time working with teeth and it’s something I never expected to be working on. It really amazes me every day to think that we have fossils in our mouths that are recording our life experiences. The untapped potential is what keeps me motivated to continue this work!

Mohamed:  This is not my first time working on teeth. I worked on teeth at dental school studying their anatomical structure and looking at them under the microscope. Also, I have carved teeth from wax blocks, which is fun to do.

Jamie: This is my first time working with teeth! And no, I never would have imagined I’d be doing this!

3. What is one fact about teeth that you think most people might not know?

Becky:  That tooth plaque can be an informative way of learning more about someone’s life. In addition to teeth themselves, many scientists also study fossilized plaque (or dental calculus) that has remained on ancient skeletal remains for potentially thousands of years. This ancient plaque can tell them things about what people ate, ancient diseases, and how the microbes in our mouth and gut have changed over time.

Olivia: Over the past year, I have learned A LOT about teeth.  One of my favorite readings was Dr Tanya Smith’s book called The Tales Teeth Tell, which explains what teeth can tell us about human development, evolution, and behavior. One of my favorite facts from that book was that teeth are so resilient and do not regenerate like other tissues. They are one of the few specimens that archeologists are able to study because they don’t break-down.

Mohamed:  The outermost structure of teeth, known as enamel, is the fifth hardest material on Mohs hardness scale.  The Mohs scale is used to measure the hardness of all existing materials.  Also, tooth enamel is the hardest substance in our entire body!

Jamie: One of the reasons teeth, specifically baby teeth, are so interesting is that they provide a fossil record of our early life experiences, during childhood. They record physiological changes in our body similarly to trees recording environmental changes.

4. What are you currently working on in the lab related to teeth?

Becky: I’m currently working on a project that looks at the effects of prenatal exposure to maternal depression on a feature of primary or “baby” teeth known as the Neonatal Line. The Neonatal Line is a microscopic “stress line” that forms in the enamel of your tooth around the time of birth, marking the transition from the intrauterine to extrauterine environment. The width of this line has been previously shown to be associated with preterm births and obstetric complications but has yet to be investigated in relation to exposure to maternal stress. We are researching this association to determine if the Neonatal Line may be a promising new biomarker of exposure to prenatal adversity and maternal stress, which are risk factors for later mental health outcomes.

Olivia: I work mostly on planning our studies to collect baby teeth from children to see what kinds of life experiences they record. This involves writing research protocols, developing study materials, and creating recruitment plans so we can reach our target population for a study.

Mohamed:  I am working on the wet lab aspects of our projects. I will be conducting lab techniques on teeth like embedding, cutting, microscopy, and MicroCT imaging in order to study multiple characteristics of teeth.

Jamie: I’m currently working on planning and logistical issues for a study we are about to begin data collection for.  I’ve been working  hard to make sure this project is well thought-out and will run as smoothly as possible.  More details about this study to come in a future blog post!

5. What excites you most about the work you are doing to study teeth?

Becky: I’m really excited by the future applications of our work. I’m really driven by the potential of our research to identify new non-invasive biomarkers that could help people at high risk for mental health issues, and target intervention strategies even before they experience psychiatric symptoms.

Olivia: One of the coolest things about baby teeth is almost everyone around the world has them and almost everyone loses them. Universally, we are producing these fossils that could help researchers better understand how our life experiences get embedded into our bodies. If we could do this inexpensively, quickly, and early in life, the population level public health impact of this research could be quite substantial. That’s what keeps me excited about what we do on Team Tooth.

Mohamed: I am excited about the way we can use baby teeth as a biomarker to possibly predict the mental health outcomes of our children. Also, how we can hopefully use the information we get from the teeth to come up with early prevention tools.

Jamie: The potential! If you’ve thought like me, I never really thought about teeth outside of the context of smiles and chewing food. Our study has made me think of teeth in a different light and I’m excited about the potential that teeth have to help scientists and other doctors.

6. When you were growing-up, what do you remember about shedding your teeth?

Becky: I remember the way they felt when they were half falling-out, and the way they felt hollow at the root when I tried to push at them with my tongue. It was a very strange feeling, but I was also very fascinated by what was keeping all the others stuck in there.

Olivia: I used to get really excited about leaving my tooth for the Tooth Fairy (mostly for the money), but I was always a skeptic and was a little creeped out by fairies. I loved science from a very young age, so I think I’d be excited about an alternative to give my teeth to help science.

Mohamed: I remember one day at elementary school, I was chewing gum. While I was chewing it, suddenly I found something very hard to chew in my mouth.  When I took it out of my mouth, it appeared to be my own shed molar.

Jamie: I remember a dentist appointment where I had around 6 teeth taken out in one session. I also remember the classic tie-your-tooth-and-slam-the-door- method, but I can’t remember if that was for me or my sibling. Either way, very memorable!

Becky missing one front tooth
Becky missing one front tooth
Olivia after losing her two front teeth
Olivia after losing her two front teeth
Erin’s first grade school picture, circa 1984
Erin’s first grade school picture, circa 1984

We hope you enjoyed this Q&A with our members of Team Tooth and were able to learn a bit about why teeth are so special to us. If you have any memories of losing baby teeth or other fun teeth facts, please share with us on Twitter @ErinDunnScD!

About the Mass General Research Institute
Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States. Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to develop innovative new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
Support our research

Tags: ,
smiles collage

Teeth as Tools to Measure Early Life Adversity and Future Mental Health Risk

Diverse people in a yoga class doing balancing position

Could Yoga One Day Be Prescribed as a Depression Treatment? Five Questions to Consider

%d bloggers like this: