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New evidence suggests possible link between brain function and oral health

As there has been little previous research into the topic, magnetic resonance imaging is now being used to provide clues about how oral health can have an impact on brain function. (Image: Alina Bratosin/Shutterstock)

DALLAS, US: An increased burden of cerebrovascular disease could be connected to a genetic predisposition for poor oral health, according to a new study funded by the American Heart Association. The researchers used the presence of white matter hyperintensities, which are accumulated damage to the white matter of the brain, as evidence of cerebrovascular disease. Documented through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the resulting scans showed that for individuals who were genetically prone to edentulism or caries there was a 24% increase in white matter hyperintensities in their brains.

The white matter hyperintensities are linked to potential issues with balance, mobility and memory. The researchers also generated microstructural damage scores for the participants. Microstructural damage is the degree to which the fine architecture of the brain has changed in comparison with images for a normal brain scan of a healthy adult of similar age.

Using data from the UK Biobank, the samples included individuals primarily from the UK of European ancestry. They were evaluated for 105 possible genetic variations linked to caries, the eventual need for dentures or any form of edentulism. The researchers also noted that, when a participant had broader poor oral health beyond caries and edentulism as a result of genetics, the microstructural damage score increased to 43%.

Lead author Dr Cyprien Rivier, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven in Connecticut, commented in a press release: “Studying oral health is especially important because poor oral health happens frequently and is an easily modifiable risk factor—everyone can effectively improve their oral health with minimal time and financial investment.” Dr Rivier also noted the value of using neuroimaging tools such as MRI to assess the impact of oral health upon brain function.

Dr Joseph P. Broderick, a professor at the University of Cincinnati Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine and a Stroke Council member, said that the findings should spur more research but are not concrete evidence that improved oral hygiene will improve brain health. He noted that genetic factors for a variety of conditions could overlap with those that cause poor oral health. Dr Broderick said: “Environmental factors such as smoking and health conditions such as diabetes are much stronger risk factors for poor oral health than any genetic marker—except for rare genetic conditions associated with poor oral health, such as defective or missing enamel.”

The findings were presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2023, which took place from 8 to 10 February in Dallas in Texas.

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