The article, When Gut Bacteria Changes Brain Function: Some researchers believe that the microbiome may play a role in regulating how people think and feel. published in The Atlantic, is fascinating! I highly recommend it.
It’s not yet clear how the microbiome alters the brain. Most researchers agree that microbes probably influence the brain via multiple mechanisms. Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which play a key role in mood (many antidepressants increase levels of these same compounds). Certain organisms also affect how people metabolize these compounds, effectively regulating the amount that circulates in the blood and brain. Gut bacteria may also generate other neuroactive chemicals, including one called butyrate, that have been linked to reduced anxiety and depression. Cryan and others have also shown that some microbes can activate the vagus nerve, the main line of communication between the gut and the brain. In addition, the microbiome is intertwined with the immune system, which itself influences mood and behavior.
This interconnection of bugs and brain seems credible, too, from an evolutionary perspective. After all, bacteria have lived inside humans for millions of years. Cryan suggests that over time, at least a few microbes have developed ways to shape their hosts’ behavior for their own ends. Modifying mood is a plausible microbial survival strategy, he argues that “happy people tend to be more social. And the more social we are, the more chances the microbes have to exchange and spread.”
As scientists learn more about how the gut-brain microbial network operates, Cryan thinks it could be hacked to treat psychiatric disorders. “These bacteria could eventually be used the way we now use Prozac or Valium,” he says. And because these microbes have eons of experience modifying our brains, they are likely to be more precise and subtle than current pharmacological approaches, which could mean fewer side effects. “I think these microbes will have a real effect on how we treat these disorders,” Cryan says. “This is a whole new way to modulate brain function.”
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