By Tim Hyland
Researchers have long understood the importance of the oral microbiome to overall dental health, and the link between unbalanced microbiomes—a state called dysbiosis—is well established.
What has not been so clearly understood, however, is how the microbiomes of very young children develop and change as they age. At birth, most babies will have a normal, balanced, and symbiotic oral microbiome, albeit one with only a small fraction of the bacteria that a normal adult would have. But as the months and years of their early childhood pass, dysbiosis can set in, leading to tooth decay and periodontal disease. The question that researchers have yet to answer is how that process unfolds, and what factors play into it.
Recently, a team of researchers from Japan set out to explore the issue. (It’s important to note, that while this small study didn't go into much depth, it establishes a potential link that should be further explored in future studies.)
For their work, which was published in January in the journal Scientific Reports, the research team--from the Tokyo-based Lion Corporation and the Lion Foundation for Dental Health--collected saliva samples from 40 18-month-old infants, as well as their parents.
The researchers specifically wanted to work with 18-month-olds because, as they noted in their work, it is only by that point in their lives that babies have a fully developed microbiome, one that is shaped by any number of environmental factors, from breastfeeding to teething to the types of foods they are introduced to. And they wanted to work with their parents in hopes to gain some level of understanding as to whether the microbiomes of both parents can in some way influence that of their children--and, by extension, their children’s dental health.
The answer, the team found, was clear—but widely different between mothers and fathers.
After collecting the saliva samples and then using genetic sequencing techniques to contrast and compare the microbiomes of parents, children, and unrelated adults, the team discovered that young children rarely have microbiomes similar to either unrelated adults or their fathers; by contrast, however, they did have very similar microbiomes to their mothers. Again, this could be attributable to the activities such as breastfeeding, during which babies are exposed to their mother’s broader microbiome. The study did not address babies who were formula-fed.
In a related finding, the team found that the microbiomes of spouses were “significantly more similar” than those between unrelated adults, a result that was likely traceable to “activities such as kissing and contact with same microbial sources or diets.”
The question, of course, is what the relevance of these findings have, and how they can be applied in practice to help create better outcomes for young children and their dental health.
The answer, the team says, is actually quite simple: because spouses can influence the state of their partner’s microbiome, and because mothers can influence the state of their babies’ microbiomes--most especially during infancy, as their microbiomes are being developed--it’s important for parents to maintain healthy habits.
“The bacteria highly shared between infants and parents included not only commensal bacteria, but also disease-related bacteria,” the team concluded. “Hence, it is important for parents to control their oral microbiome by continuous professional treatment and self-care, and if they are suffering from oral diseases, should be careful of infections in their children.”
We look forward to additional studies that go further in-depth into this topic and its potential impact on improving generational oral health.
Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years' experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and The Washington Times.