Three researchers at the Brain-Body Institute at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, are on a mission to determine whether or not the microbes in the human digestive tract can create — or cure — post-traumatic stress disorder.
Inside the digestive tract, trillions of microbes help digest food and fight illness. Recently, researchers have learned that these microbes also send signals to the brain, influencing not only food cravings but also mood, behavior and even mental illness. This is known as the gut-brain link.
Sophie Leclercq, Ph.D., John Bienenstock, M.D., and Paul Forsythe, Ph.D., set out to determine whether or not gut microbes could be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. To accomplish this, they performed a series of research studies on laboratory mice. Some mice were exposed to stressful situations, whereas other mice existed in a relatively stress-free environment. The researchers then examined the gut bacteria in both sets of mice.
“What we found was an imbalance in the gut microbiota of the stressed mice,” explained Forsythe. “The gut and bowels are a very complex ecology. The less diversity, the greater disruption to the body.”
The researchers then fed live bacteria extracted from the calm mice to the stressed mice. After receiving this probiotic treatment, the stressed mice began to show fewer signs of anxiety and began to behave more like the calmer mice. The researchers also used a powerful, noninvasive neuroimaging technique known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). With this method, they found that feeding “calm” bacteria to the stressed mice resulted in striking, significant changes to the mice’s brain chemistry.
“Recent experimental and clinical data converge on the hypothesis that imbalanced gut microbiota in early life may have long-lasting immune and other physiologic effects that make individuals more susceptible to develop PTSD after a traumatic event and contribute to the disorder,” wrote the researchers.
What does this mean?
The researchers hope that one day, they’ll be able to look at the gut microbes in humans and determine whether or not people are at risk of developing PTSD or if they already have the disorder, allowing clinicians to quickly diagnose and treat it. (PTSD is often confused with bipolar disorder, ADHD and even schizophrenia.)
Ideally, it will also be possible to one day treat PTSD with gut microbes, although considerably more research is necessary before scientists can say this with certainty. The current results are optimistic, however, and the research team is hoping to secure funding for clinical trials to determine whether similar treatments can work in humans.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, 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.