Neuroscientists are probing the idea that intestinal microbiota might influence brain development and behaviour. Recent studies demonstrate that gut microbes directly alter neurotransmitter levels, which may enable them to communicate with neurons.
Nearly a year has passed since Rebecca Knickmeyer first met the participants in her latest study on brain development. Knickmeyer, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, expects to see how 30 newborns have grown into crawling, inquisitive one-year-olds, using a battery of behavioural and temperament tests. In one test, a child’s mother might disappear from the testing suite and then reappear with a stranger. Another ratchets up the weirdness with some Halloween masks. Then, if all goes well, the kids should nap peacefully as a noisy magnetic resonance imaging machine scans their brains. “We try to be prepared for everything,” Knickmeyer says. “We know exactly what to do if kids make a break for the door.”
Knickmeyer is excited to see something else from the children — their faecal microbiota, the array of bacteria, viruses and other microbes that inhabit their guts. Her project (affectionately known as ‘the poop study’) is part of a small but growing effort by neuroscientists to see whether the microbes that colonize the gut in infancy can alter brain development.
The project comes at a crucial juncture. A growing body of data, mostly from animals raised in sterile, germ-free conditions, shows that microbes in the gut influence behaviour and can alter brain physiology and neurochemistry.
In humans, the data are more limited. Researchers have drawn links between gastrointestinal pathology and psychiatric neurological conditions such as anxiety, depression, autism, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disorders — but they are just links.
“In general, the problem of causality in microbiome studies is substantial,” says Rob Knight, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s very difficult to tell if microbial differences you see associated with diseases are causes or consequences.” There are many outstanding questions. Clues about the mechanisms by which gut bacteria might interact with the brain are starting to emerge, but no one knows how important these processes are in human development and health.
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