Autism researchers are one step closer to finding the cause of the developmental disorder after concluding an interesting study involving baby teeth. Yep, those things the “tooth fairy” throws away actually contain all sorts of valuable information. Who knew? Well, besides the super-smart people at the National Institutes of Health. This almost makes me feel bad about trashing the gross little things. Almost.
Scientists at the NIH collected the baby teeth of thirty-two sets of twins and twelve individual twins (either one had autism, or both or neither did) for this study into how environmental exposure to metals can affect the risk of autism. Because the teeth were all from twins, the researchers were able to control for almost all genetic factors, which is fascinating.
But why baby teeth? ”We think autism begins very early, most likely in the womb, and research suggests that our environment can increase a child’s risk. But by the time children are diagnosed at age 3 or 4, it’s hard to go back and know what the moms were exposed to,” said Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Genes, Environment, and Health Branch. ”With baby teeth, we can actually do that.” Science is the best.
Researchers found higher levels of lead in children with autism throughout development, with the greatest disparity observed during the period following birth. They also observed lower uptake of manganese in children with autism, both before and after birth. The findings build on prior research showing that exposure to toxic metals and deficiencies of essential nutrients may harm brain development while in the womb or during early childhood.
Before anyone freaks out, the researchers were sure to note that replication in larger studies is needed to confirm the connection between metal uptake and autism.
Still. This is a huge discovery, and it will be fascinating to see what further research discovers!
(Image: iStock / Bill Nye)