Monday, March 30, 2015

Gut Feelings

This boy may be influencing who he will marry when
he grows up. Photo by Orrling at Wikimedia Commons.
Animals (including humans) are swarming with microorganisms both on and in our bodies. Humans harbor so many different microorganisms that we have over 150 times more microbial genes than mammalian genes, and it is reasonable to suspect that this scenario is similar for most animals. But before you run to soak in a tub of hand sanitizer, you should realize that many of these microorganisms are actually beneficial to the health of both your body and your mind. Although this field is still very much in its infancy, we have found that the microbes that live in digestive tracts in particular significantly influence their host animal’s behaviors. This connection between our digestive communities and our behaviors has been termed the microbiota–gut–brain axis.

Much of the early research on the microbiota-gut-brain axis was done using specialized mice that have never been exposed to any bacteria. You may think this sounds like a healthy lifestyle, but these so-called germ-free mice have all kinds of health and behavioral problems. They often have digestive difficulties and high levels of anxiety, symptoms common of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). They also typically have deficits in social behavior and increased repetitive behaviors. Similar to autism-spectrum disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), these behavioral problems are more likely to occur in males than in females. When faced with a challenge, many struggle with solving the problem and show a higher tendency to give up, symptoms common in patients with depression. Interestingly, simply feeding germ-free mice some species of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria (similar to bacterial strains found in different brands of yogurt) can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, cognitive difficulties, autism, and OCD. This has led to a boom in biomedical research on the benefits of probiotics (that contain microbes that live in our guts) and prebiotics (that contain things that the microbes in our guts eat).

Yogurt bacteria. Photo by Josef Reischig at Wikimedia Commons.
These gut microbes don’t just help animals maintain their physical and mental health, they are also involved in complex social behaviors. For example, fruit flies prefer mates that grew up eating the same diet that they grew up eating. However, if they are treated with antibiotics, which kill the gut bacteria, they lose their mate choice preferences. If they are then treated again with microbes from their initial diet (with one Lactobacillus bacteria in particular), they gain their mate choice preferences back. This all makes me wonder, how important is yogurt to choosing the people we date and marry?

How do microbes in our guts affect our brains anyway? Although the answer to this is still mostly unknown, we know that the gut has the potential to influence the brain through multiple means, including hormone production, immune function, and even directly through specific nerves. The specific mechanisms are still being very actively researched, but it is clear that microscopic critters living in our guts likely influence our brains and behaviors in many different physiological ways.

Microbiota-gut-brain axis research is revolutionizing the way we think about health, medical treatments, behavior and even existential questions like who am I? But one thing is for sure: I’m gonna go have another yogurt.

Want to know more? Check these out:

Cryan, J., & Dinan, T. (2015). More than a Gut Feeling: the Microbiota Regulates Neurodevelopment and Behavior Neuropsychopharmacology, 40 (1), 241-242 DOI: 10.1038/npp.2014.224

Ezenwa, V., Gerardo, N., Inouye, D., Medina, M., & Xavier, J. (2012). Animal Behavior and the Microbiome Science, 338 (6104), 198-199 DOI: 10.1126/science.1227412