Scientists discover that dental radiographs can reveal vitamin D deficiency

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Scientists discover that dental radiographs can reveal vitamin D deficiency

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CAPTION: Simple radiographs of teeth comparing a healthy modern tooth with an archaeological sample showing vitamin D deficiency. (Images: McMaster University)

Mon. 20. November 2017

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HAMILTON, Ontario, Canada: Human teeth hold vital information about vitamin D deficiency, and Canadian anthropologists have now found that this serious but often hidden condition can be detected on a simple dental radiograph. Identifying individuals who may have experienced vitamin D deficiency has significant potential for further understanding of the factors that may have compromised the health of people in the past.

McMaster University researchers Prof. Megan Brickley, Lori D’Ortenzio and their colleagues had previously discovered that human teeth hold a detailed and permanent record of serious vitamin D deficiency. This appears as microscopic deformities in dentin and can be extremely valuable for understanding precisely when people, even those who lived centuries ago, were deprived of sunlight, necessary for the body’s production of vitamin D.

The record is preserved by enamel, which protects teeth from breaking down, unlike bones, which are subject to decay. The problem with looking for such deformities is that a tooth must be cut open to observe the patterns that form a lifetime’s vitamin D record, and the supply of post-mortem teeth available for study is limited.

To avoid wasting precious specimens, the researchers looked for a way to isolate teeth for further investigation. By using radiographs to study the readily observable shapes of the pulp horns, the researchers found a consistent, recognizable pattern that could prove helpful both to their studies of archaeological teeth, as well as to people who may not realize they are suffering from vitamin D deficiency.

The pulp shape in a healthy person’s tooth resembles an arch topped by two cat ears, but in a person who has had a severe deficiency of Vitamin D is asymmetrical and constricted, typically looking like the profile of a hard-backed chair.

D’Ortenzio and Brickley’s previous research had suggested such a recognizable pattern, and their examination of both historic and current teeth proved that radiographic images are consistent and reliable indicators of prior deficiency.

“It was a real Eureka! It wasn’t just that it looked different. It was different,” remembered Brickley, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioarchaeology of Human Disease. “I think it’s really important. It was a piece of work that aimed to look more at past individuals, but it has the potential to contribute to modern health care as well.”

Since the consequences of vitamin D deficiency can be severe—especially in terms of bone health—knowing who has had a deficiency can help identify people who may have ongoing issues to prevent worse damage, the researchers said. If regular dental radiographs show a problem, blood tests can confirm whether there is a current deficiency.

Knowing more about ongoing vitamin D deficiency can also help to determine what is the best balance between protecting people from harmful UV rays and making sure they get enough sun to maintain a healthy level of the vital nutrient.

The study, titled “The rachitic tooth: The use of radiographs as a screening technique,” was published online on Nov. 7 in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

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