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Neuroscience For Kids

Redheads and Dental Anxiety
September 22, 2009

Many people don't like going to their dentist. Some people even develop a phobia about going to the dentist's office and do not get the necessary care to keep their teeth healthy. People with red hair may have even more to worry about: they often carry a variant of the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene. MC1R gene variants make people more sensitive to pain and require them to have more medication to reduce pain.

Researchers wanted to know if people with red hair and those with MC1R gene variants were more anxious and more scared about dental care than non-redheads and people without MC1R gene variants. They also studied how often people in these groups avoided dental care.

The scientist divided 144 people into two groups: one group of 67 subjects had natural red hair and the other group with 77 subjects had dark (black or dark brown) hair. All subjects in both groups were of northern European descent. Questionnaires were given to each subject to measure general anxiety, specific fear and anxiety associated with dental pain and how they used dental care services. Blood samples were taken to determine who had variants of the MC1R gene.

Of the 67 redheads, 65 of them had a MC1R gene variant; of the 77 dark haired subjects, 20 had a MC1R variant. People with red hair had significantly more anxiety about dental care and avoided dental treatment more than people with dark hair. Also, people with one or more MC1R gene variants (regardless of hair color) had more anxiety about dental care, more fear about dental pain and avoided dental treatment more than people without a MC1R gene variant.

These results suggest that dentists should be especially aware of patients who have red hair. Redheads may be more sensitive to pain and require more anesthetics (pain medications) during dental procedures. A bad experience at the dentist's office may cause people to develop anxiety and fear about dental treatment. Unfortunately, this may cause some people to avoid proper dental care.

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