Dental News

Cell Damage Caused By Brushing May Help Keep Gums Healthy
Microscopic images of wounded epithelial cells in the gum and resulting expression of the c-fos gene (in red). (Credit: Image courtesy of Medical College of Georgia)

ScienceDaily (Aug. 6, 2007) — One way regular brushing may help  keep gums firm and pink is, paradoxically, by tearing open cells, researchers  have found.

Bristles wielded with even gentle  force tear holes in the epithelial cells that line the gums and tongue, causing  a momentary rupture, researchers at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta report in the August issue of the Journal of Dental Research.

Tearing enables calcium, abundant in saliva, to move into the cells,  triggering internal membranes to move up and patch the hole, says Dr. Katsuya  Miyake, MCG cell biologist and the paper’s co-first author. But in the seconds  that repair takes, growth factors that promote growth of collagen, new cells  and blood vessels leak out of injured cells.

Cell injury also turns on expression  of the c-fos gene, an early-response gene often activated under stress that may  be the first step in a response such as cell division or growth, says Dr. Paul  L. McNeil, MCG cell biologist and corresponding author.

“It’s very clear that brushing your  teeth is a healthy thing to do; no one questions that brushing removes bacteria  and that’s probably its main function,” Dr. McNeil says. “But we are thinking  that there might be another positive aspect of brushing. Many tissues in our  bodies respond to mechanical stress by adapting and getting stronger, like  muscles. We think the gums may adapt to this mechanical stress by getting  thicker and healthier. It’s the no pain, no gain theory the same as  exercising.”

The research team, which also includes  Dr. Kaori Amano, dental researcher, Kyorin University of Medicine in Japan,  and Dr. James L. Borke, MCG physiologist,  injected a fluorescent dye into the blood  stream that can only get into torn cells. They then brushed the teeth, gums and  tongue of rats with a modified electric toothbrush. “We saw lots of bright  cells,” says Dr. Miyake, co-director of the MCG Cell Imaging Core Facility.

“… (W)e suggest that, in addition to its well-know ability to remove  bacteria and their harmful products from teeth, brushing may, by causing plasma  membrane disruptions, lead to local cell-adaptive responses ultimately of  benefit to gingival health,” the researchers write.

“Viewing brushing from this novel context, as a direct physical stimulus  that promotes gum health, opens up new avenues for research,” Dr. McNeil says. One  immediate area of interest is to identify chemical signals produced by wounded  oral cavity cells that could promote gum health.

Moreover, the method and/or  type of brush might strongly influence the extent of epithelial cell-wounding  and subsequent liberation of factors that promote gum health, Dr. McNeil says.

Interestingly researchers found that brushing injures not only epithelial  cells on the tongue’s surface but muscle cells underneath as well. “The  mechanical forces must have been transmitted through the intact epithelium to  the muscle cells,” says Dr. McNeil, director of the MCG Cell Imaging Core  Facility. “It means our epithelium is tough and maintains a nice, resilient barrier  but, not surprisingly, since it’s not a hard surface, it transmits forces quite  readily.”

The gum, tongue and other surfaces  in the oral cavity are covered with layers of epithelial cells that serve as a  natural boundary between what goes in the mouth and the blood supply. As food  digests, nutrients and other desirables move across the single layer of  epithelial cells lining the gastrointestinal tract to get to the blood.

The work was supported in part by a grant from NASA.

Adapted from materials provided by Medical College of Georgia.