At first, neurons and saliva seemed worlds apart to Cameron Jeter, PhD.
A brain scientist by training, she studied traumatic brain injury and neurological disorders like Tourette syndrome at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where she earned an appointment to the school’s faculty.
As UTHealth School of Dentistry placed increasing emphasis on the connection between oral health and overall health—including the brain—they asked Jeter to join their faculty as well.
“I didn’t know how I was going to use my neuroscience expertise on oral health when I joined,” she remembers.
The answer was unexpected. Within a year, her father developed parkinsonism, a general term for a group of neurological disorders with movement problems seen in Parkinson’s disease.
“My eureka moment was when I realized symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include poor swallowing and that I could improve my dad’s health and the health of others who share the same challenges brought on by their conditions,” says Jeter.
Parkinson’s disease often leads to the inability to swallow saliva, which results in drooling and can change the bacterial content and the pH balance of the saliva. The act of swallowing helps to clear pathogens from the mouth.
“Drooling and difficulty swallowing can result in aspiration pneumonia, which is the leading cause of death in Parkinson’s disease,” says Jeter. And that led me to think about the link between oral health and morbidity in Parkinson’s disease.”
Jeter believes a high-tech solution can help Parkinson’s patients and all older adults remove oral health barriers such as physical limitations and access to a dentist. Her research, funded by a Colgate-Palmolive grant, looks at whether a tablet app to track the oral hygiene of nursing home residents can lead to better oral health.
Even as she continues her study, she thinks about converting her idea into a smart toothbrush. “The challenge is collecting the necessary information, including pictures of the mouth, that can be shared with a dentist, while being affordable and easy to use,” says Jeter.
Jeter’s father passed away in 2014, but her determination continues. “We want to improve not only the quality of life for these individuals, but also the time they have with us,” she notes.