“You are what you eat.” This well-known phrase addresses the tie between what people consume and their physical health. But what about how it affects someone’s mental health?
A recent research study conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has found that certain types of gut bacteria can be used to enhance neural health – at least in mice.
The results of this study were published in the scientific journal eLife.
The research study was led by Patrizia Casaccia, M.D., a professor of neuroscience, genetics and genomics, and neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the chief of the Center of Excellence for Myelin Repair, as well as Mar Gacias, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow.
Casaccia and Gacias set out with a research team to determine whether specific types of gut bacteria can influence myelination in the brain. Myelin, a layer of cells that forms around each neuron to facilitate communication, is essential for brain health. The symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis (for instance vision loss, muscle weakness and vertigo) are the result of damaged and reduced levels of myelin. Depression has also been linked to demyelination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals with M.S. are more likely to have depression than the general population.
In this study, the researchers transferred fecal bacteria from depressed mice to a group of genetically distinct mice that did not exhibit depressive behavior. After the transfer was complete, the mice that had received the gut bacteria began to demonstrate social withdrawal behaviors. They also experienced an altered expression of myelin genes and a significant change in myelin content.
In other words, gut bacteria actually has the potential to change neural health.
“Our findings will help in the understanding of microbiota in modulating multiple sclerosis,” explained Dr. Casaccia. “The study provides a proof of principle that gut metabolites have the ability to affect myelin content irrespective of the genetic makeup of mice.”
The researchers also identified specific bacterial communities associated with cresol, a substance that has been found to prevent myelin-forming cells from functioning properly. When the researchers exposed precursors of myelin-forming cells to this culture, they found that these cells lost their ability to form myelin.
“We are hopeful these metabolites can be targeted for potential future therapies,” Dr. Casaccia added.
Why does gut bacteria affect the brain?
As it turns out, “following your gut” is more than just an expression. Recent research has indicated that the health of our stomach is tied strongly to the health of our mind. In 2013, a group of researchers found that a specific kind of gut bacteria (Bacteroides fragiles) can reduce some of the symptoms of autism in mice. Another study found that the lactic acid bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus functioned not unlike an antidepressant when fed to depressed mice. Numerous studies have confirmed the powerful influence gut bacteria exerts over the brain.
More research needs to be done before professionals can start prescribing bacteria to people with mental illness, autism and M.S., however. So far, the majority of studies have been conducted in rodents, with human studies few and far between. Nonetheless, these results are encouraging and may point towards a future in which gut fauna can be used to treat mental and neurological illnesses.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.