‘Stranger Things’ boosts public understanding of 1-in-a-million condition

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
Cast member Gaten Matarazzo poses at the premiere for the second season of the television series "Stranger Things" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
'Stranger Things' actor Gaten Matarazzo was born with cleidocranial dysplasia. He is pictured at the premiere of the second series in LA in October 2017. (Getty Images)

Netflix’s Stranger Things appears to be educating viewers on a little-known disorder.

Actor Gaten Matarazzo, 17, who plays Dustin Henderson in the cult show, was born with cleidocranial dysplasia.

Read more: Hopper Is Officially Alive and Hot AF in 'Stranger Things' Season 4

The condition has been incorporated into Dustin’s storyline, with the fictional character mentioning it in an episode.

Scientists from Oklahoma State University found a spike in people searching for the one-in-a-million disorder as a result.

Stranger Things
Cleidocranial dysplasia has been incorporated into Gaten's character Dustin Henderson. (Netflix)

In the first episode of Stranger Things, Dustin was seen defending himself against school bullies.

“I told you a million times, my teeth are coming in,” he said.

“It’s called cleidocranial dysplasia.”

The scientists analysed data from Google Trends and cleidocranial dysplasia foundations to uncover public interest in the condition after the show’s first three series aired.

Read more: Netflix says 64 million people watched season three of 'Stranger Things'

Each series was linked to an increase in weekly searches for the condition “above what would be expected”.

One cleidocranial dysplasia information page reached 10,000 visits the week after the show’s third series premiered mid-last year.

Writing in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery, the scientists urge caution be used when portraying characters with rare disorders, but praised their ability to raise awareness.

What is cleidocranial dysplasia?

Cleidocranial dysplasia primarily impacts the development of bones and teeth.

It is thought to affect around one-in-a-million people worldwide.

The National Library of Medicine notes the disorder is likely under-diagnosed due to many patients having mild symptoms.

Cleidocranial dysplasia is usually caused by mutations in the gene RUNX2.

This “provides instructions for making a protein that is involved in the development and maintenance of teeth, bones, and cartilage”.

The condition can be passed down from one affected parent, who often has mild symptoms that have gone undiagnosed.

Other cases arise from random mutations that occurred in the individual patient’s DNA.

Around 30% of patients have no mutation in their RUNX2 gene, with their cause being unknown.

Female radiologist hold in hand x-ray film image aganist hospital office background. CT scan of bone health concept.
Cleidocranial dysplasia primarily affects the development of bones and teeth. (Getty Images)

What are the symptoms of cleidocranial dysplasia?

Most patients have underdeveloped or missing collarbones.

This causes their shoulders to be narrow and sloping.

In some cases, their shoulders can even be “squeezed” together to touch at the front of the body.

Another tell-tale sign of cleidocranial dysplasia is delayed “maturation” of the skull.

As a result, the fontanelles - soft spots - on the head that normally close in babies, remain open throughout a patient’s life.

They tend to also be short, with boys around six inches (15.2cm) shorter than expected and girls three inches (7.6cm), according to About Kids Health.

Patients may also have short tapered fingers, broad thumbs, flat feet, “knock knees” and curvature of the spine.

Read more: One in five Brits pulls sickies to keep up with binge-watch TV

Facially, their forehead is often prominent, their eyes wide set, nose flat and upper jaw small.

Cleidocranial dysplasia patients tend to have low bone density, which results in osteoporosis in later life.

In pregnant patients, their narrow pelvis puts them at increased risk of a C-section.

Dental abnormalities are “very common”. This can include delayed loss of baby teeth and slow appearance of adult teeth.

When the adult teeth do “drop”, they are often “peg-like”.

Patients often tend to have too many adult teeth, leading to overcrowding in the mouth and misalignment of the jaw.

They are also prone to hearing loss and ear infections.

Children may be slow to crawl or walk. Intelligence is unaffected.

How is cleidocranial dysplasia treated?

Cleidocranial dysplasia is incurable, with treatment being “symptomatic and supportive”.

Babies and young child may wear head gear until their fontanelles close.

“Appropriate” dental care should be provided, as well as hearing evaluations, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

Speech and language may need to be assessed by a specialist.

If a child has frequent ear infections, “tympanostomy tubes” may be recommended.

This involves surgically placing small tubes in the eardrum to equalise pressure and “funnel” air into the middle ear, reducing the risk of subsequent infections and hearing loss.

Calcium and vitamin D supplements may be suggested to strengthen bones.