When it comes to our physical health, there's a lot we can control. We can eat well and exercise, not smoke, limit alcohol, get regular physicals to be healthy and prevent disease.

Mental health, on the other hand, can be a lot trickier to predict and treat. But a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital is going to examine the theory that microscopic markings inside children's teeth could be used to detect the kind of trauma that could lead to mental illness. The scientists are looking to test this by studying the teeth of children born around the time of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Dr. Erin Dunn is one of the scientists conducting this study. She spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Arun Rath about the study. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: So I know I've seen before how scientists can read histories on things like tree rings or layers of rock and sediment. Is the idea here that our teeth somehow can also record things over time?

Erin Dunn: That's exactly right. So what's really unique is that trees and our teeth have some similar features. So if you look at the stump of a tree or a piece of wood that's been cut horizontally, you'll notice a set of rings. And these rings appear every year as the tree is growing. And what's really interesting is that our teeth do something very similar. So our teeth are permanently recording each part of its developmental process. And that time scale can happen on a daily increment and also on a weekly increment. And what's amazing is if you look closely, you might see that some of the rings on a tree, for example, are thinner or thicker. And those tell you something about what the environment was like as the tree was forming. So what we're interested in doing is seeing whether the characteristics that are recorded in teeth in the form of these growth marks might provide some interesting information that can help us identify what kinds of life experiences might be recorded in teeth.

Rath: Talk a bit about this study: How many people you're looking to recruit, how you're going to study their teeth? How is it all going to work?

Dunn: So in this study, we are interested in recruiting women who were pregnant or had very young children around the time of the marathon bombing. And the name of the study is called STRONG. And that stands for Stories, Teeth, Record of Newborn Growth. And what we're hoping to be able to do is to recruit a couple hundred women who were pregnant or had young ones around the time of the bombing and the manhunt so that we can study those moms and be able to collect the teeth of those children who were born around that time or were less than 1 years of age at that time and are now just at the age where they're starting to lose their first teeth.

Rath: And then would you compare those teeth, with teeth from children who - would it be like a control group, not from the Boston Marathon bombings?

Dunn: So we're interested in studying people who had a range of different experiences with the bombing. Some people might have been watching at the sidelines, other people might have been watching it on TV or were living and working in the area. So we're trying to get a range of different kinds of exposures that mom might have had at that time. And then we're also looking to study the siblings of the children that might have been born or were under 1 years of age at that time, so that we can also try to have a comparison group to be able to study in terms of our analysis.

Rath: How do you get all the teeth?

Dunn: So that's a great question. I have sort of likened myself recently to being a science tooth fairy who is trying to provide an interesting alternative to children who might be interested in science and want to contribute their data, so to speak, or contribute their teeth to research purposes. To help with recruitment efforts, we've actually created a book that's entitled The Science Tooth Fairy that summarizes the work that we do in my research group and with my team of collaborators to try to study teeth and what kinds of information we can learn from them.

Rath: That's awesome. So if they're kids that want to help out the science tooth fairy, how do they do that?

Dunn: So they can talk to their parents and parents can visit our website. So we welcome anyone to visit who might be interested in collaborating on this study, who might be interested in participating in this study or other ones that we will be doing over the next couple of months, or folks who are also interested in supporting. One of the things that we will send home to people who are eligible to participate is this book. And at the end of the book, actually, children can send me letters as the science tooth fairy and they can tell me a little bit more about how they lost their teeth and receive a little surprise in the mail from us.