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Where is Darwin on Dentistry? You Are What You Chew

--Guest post by Patrick Riley, AoE Culture Correspondent


The recent Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA, which I guest posted about here, wasn't just about eating like a caveman. It was about exercising like a caveman and...brushing your teeth like a caveman?

Well, sort of.

Two inquisitive dentists, Dr. Kevin Boyd, DDS, MS and Dr. Michael Mew DDS were on hand to discuss our messed-up mouths and how they got that way.

Boyd explained that malocclusion, i.e. crooked teeth, crowded teeth, misaligned jaw etc. is a modern phenomenon, a developmental disorder of craniofacial development.  Over the last 10,000 years, and moreso in the last 350 years, as waistlines have been expanding, faces have been shrinking, Boyd said. A narrower face affects one's teeth and the ability to breathe through the nose. 

Preventing this as much as possible is "vital to achieving evolutionary fitness potential," Boyd said. 

What's to blame? Modern diet plays a role. But not for the reasons you might assume would be given at a conference big on Paleolithic nutrition.

A revered figure for fans of back-to-basics eating is Dr. Weston A. Price who traveled to far-flung places, observed what people ate and noticed they were pretty healthy, as were their teeth. He was, you guessed it, a dentist.

Price theorized that nutritional deficiencies were the cause of the rotting and crooked teeth he was accustomed to seeing in his homeland of America. Too much sugar and refined grain, for example.

The UK-based Mew isn't so sure.

Mew has his doubts about Price's dietary deficiencies theory because he says there are so many people with bad jaw structure who are otherwise normally developed. He cites Olympic champion Michael Phelps who excelled in the swimming pool but has a face that has "melted away (...) like waxwork models you put a bit too close to the fire." (Though one could argue whether dental patients on a standard American diet, or Phelp’s 12,000-calorie diet, are truly otherwise healthy.)

A more recent viewpoint is, of course, that it's all in your genes.

"Sixty percent of people have crooked teeth and jaws and the cause is assumed to be genetic," said Mew. "But there's no evidence." 

In fact, while 30 to 50 percent of the population that can afford it are having orthodontal treatments, said Mew, in only 5 percent of those cases is the cause known.

Ancestrally, less than 5 percent had malocclusion problems at all. Contemporary indigenous populations have "nice" teeth too, he said.

Most of the change has occurred since the industrial revolution, he said. A move to modern diets causes dental problems in one to three generations.

So if it's not the lack of nutrients in the modern diet, what's his theory on the cause?

Mew says it may come from a lack of chewing and biting difficult foods. On a diet of soft, easy-to-eat processed foods and boneless meats, certain jaw muscles are never properly developed, and a poor "mandibular-lingual posture" leaves people unable to breath out of their nose (and mouth breathing further misaligns the jaw).

All this starts at birth, added Boyd, with babies given a bottle instead of a breast.

The nipples are "Mother Nature's palate-expander," he explained. Babies "push the nipple around the front teeth and push the palate forward (to develop) a wide and forward palate and enough room for the permanent teeth. ... Baby bottles are not promoting good growth."

"Breast-feeding for at least six months can really prevent a lot of problems," Boyd said. Mew recommends "orthotropic" inserts to correct misaligned jaws and teeth but concedes this approach is "not ready for the general population."

In my experience, I never had a cavity growing up and my dentist quit to become a used car salesman. I do have some crooked teeth (and cavities are on the rise again, according to a 2007 study) so luckily some dentists aren't quitting, they're getting smarter.

As a grad student at USC, I used to visit the dental school there occasionally – not for information but because cutting through the building was a convenient short-cut from the parking lot to the George Lucas-designed School of Cinematic Arts.

So I have no idea what they teach there. I hope it's more than just teeth cleaning and that they take a broader view of overall facial growth and development – if only to cut down on post-wisdom-teeth-removal YouTube clips like this one.

Ruminate on this in the comments section or at Mew's Facebook page: Y Crooked Teeth.

--Guest post by Patrick Riley, AoE Culture Correspondent

A recent MFA graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts, Patrick Riley has worked as a journalist, a screenwriter, and a TV editor. This year he is keeping his eye on developments in the movie industry as well as the culture of health and nutrition to share with AoE readers.

Other culture posts by Patrick Riley:

Eat Like a Caveman? Field Notes from a Conference on the Paleo Diet

Hollywood Buzz and Bust Marketing: Comparing the Green Lantern to Iron Man, Phantom Menage and Indiana Jones 4

Social Media Not Just for Revolutions, Also for Rock: But are Bands Now Guilty of Coddling Their Fans?

Mother Nature's Sons: Beatles' Progeny Struggle to Create Music Identity

HBO’s Game of Thrones: Marketing, Fan Culture, and Closure to a Beloved Fantasy Series 

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
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