Can teeth tell more about the future impact of adverse childhood events?

MGH researchers will be among the first to investigate if baby teeth can provide insights into adverse childhood events that could lead to mental health problems down the line.

Teeth develop in layers, leaving behind growth marks similar to the rings of a tree trunk. By studying the characteristics of these rings, researchers hope to find an objective way to measure the impact of these events and identify new opportunities for early intervention and treatment of disorders such as depression and anxiety.

“Every tooth can tell its own story about a period in early development, even before birth,” says Erin Dunn, ScD, MPH, of the Center for Genomic Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry, who is leading the study. “We believe teeth might capture the psychological and social stressors people experience early in life, which can then help to guide prevention efforts.”

Electronic health records could improve early Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Many researchers believe that the key to effectively treating Alzheimer’s disease is early diagnosis, before outward symptoms such as dementia and memory loss appear.

An MGH research team has developed a software-based method of scanning data from electronic records to estimate the likelihood that a currently healthy person will receive a dementia diagnosis up to eight years in advance.

The team first used machine learning technology to build a list of key clinical terms associated with cognitive symptoms. Next, they used national language processing to comb through clinical notes from 268,000 electronic health records looking for those terms. Finally, they used those results to estimate patients’ risk of developing dementia.

“We need to detect dementia as early as possible to have the best opportunity to bend the curve,” says Roy Perlis, MD, director of the MGH Center for Quantitative Health, who led the study along with Thomas McCoy Jr., MD, director of Research for the Center for Quantitative Health. “With this approach, we are using clinical data that is already in the health record that doesn’t require anything but a willingness to make use of the data.”

Raising awareness of the health risks of restrictive eating

Children who refuse to eat certain foods typically grow out of that phase as they get older. A similar condition in adults called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), however, can be a serious problem that may require treatment.

ARFID can make it difficult to eat at work or during social situations, strain relationships with friends and family members, and lead to serious medical consequences including significant weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.

A paper published by an MGH research team led by Helen B. Murray, MS, of the Department of Psychiatry, and Braden Kuo, MD, of the Division of Gastroenterology, seeks to help doctors diagnose this relatively unknown disorder and connect patients to care.

In a chart study of 97 gastroenterology patients who were retrospectively identified as ARFID patients, the team found only one was correctly diagnosed within 18 months of their initial presentation for treatment.

“The good news is there is effective, exposure-based treatment for ARFID. The bad news is that many gastroenterologists are still not aware of this diagnosis,” Murray says.