British scientists may have found a new way to predict adult health risks in children, and the diagnostic tool involves looking at a child’s baby teeth.
Jacqueline Howard, writing for The Huffington Post, reports that the idea came from new research of the teeth of the victims of the Irish Potato Famine which was conducted by archaeologists from the Universities of Bradford and Durham.
The scientists investigated baby teeth taken from 19th-Century cemeteries in Ireland where they knew victims of the famine were buried. They also exhumed bodies in London, since many families who fled the famine settled there. What they found as they looked at levels of nitrogen and carbon in the teeth was that infants’ teeth had higher nitrogen levels than did the teeth of people who lived into childhood or adolescence. These findings seemed to contradict the idea that high nitrogen levels indicate good nourishment in infants, because nitrogen isotope levels are usually higher in babies who are breastfed.
Dr. Julia Beaumont, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Bradford and the leader of the research, said:
“At the period we studied, it’s likely that most babies were breastfed, but only some showed the spike in nitrogen isotope levels normally associated with it. Where pregnant and breast-feeding mothers are malnourished, however, they can recycle their own tissues in order for the baby to grow and then to produce milk to feed it. We believe this produces higher nitrogen isotope levels and is what we’re seeing in the samples from the 19th-Century cemeteries.”
This is the point at which Beaumont began to think that examining the biochemical composition of the naturally-shed baby teeth of living children today could help predict future health.
“If we can show that baby teeth, which are lost naturally, provide markers for stress in the first months of life, we could have an important indicator of future health risks, such as diabetes and heart disease,” Beaumont said.
Beaumont is hopeful that by examining the teeth of children born in Bradford between 2007 and 2010, she can validate a relationship between nitrogen and isotope levels to the medical history of their mothers and the children’s future health.
Breastfeeding babies has been considered to have the foundation for a healthy start in life. However, the babies who showed higher nitrogen isotope levels at birth did not survive to adulthood. Those who survived had lower and more stable nitrogen isotope levels all through early childhood, according to ZeeNews India.
Beaumont concluded that the higher nitrogen isotope levels showed that the mothers were malnourished and under stress. When pregnant or breastfeeding mothers are malnourished, Beaumont explained, the mothers are able to recycle their own tissues so that the baby can grow, and once the baby is born, to produce milk to feed it. This, Beaumont conjectured, is what produces higher nitrogen isotope levels and explains what is seen in the 19th-century cemeteries.
“Babies born to and breastfed by malnourished mothers do not receive all the nutrients they need, and this is possibly why these babies didn’t survive,” she concluded.
Research done before this study by Janet Montgomery and Mandy Jay from Durham’s Department of Archaeology found results which were very similar in people living in the Iron Age on the Isle of Skye and in Neolithic Shetland.