Gut Instincts: Researchers discover first clues on how gut health influences brain health
New cellular and molecular processes underlying communication between gut microbes and brain cells have been described for the first time.
Over the last two decades, scientists have observed a clear link between autoimmune disorders and a variety of psychiatric conditions. For example, people with autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), psoriasis and multiple sclerosis may also have depleted gut microbiota and experience anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Genetic risks for autoimmune disorders and psychiatric disorders also appear to be closely related. But precisely how gut health affects brain health has been unknown.
“Our study provides new insight into the mechanisms of how the gut and brain communicate at the molecular level,” said co-senior author Dr. David Artis, director of the Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease, director of the Friedman Center for Nutrition and Inflammation and the Michael Kors Professor of Immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “No one yet has understood how IBD and other chronic gastrointestinal conditions influence behavior and mental health. Our study is the beginning of a new way to understand the whole picture.”
For the study, published Oct. 23 in Nature, the researchers used mouse models to learn about the changes that occur in brain cells when gut microbiota are depleted. First author Dr. Coco Chu, a postdoctoral associate in the Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease, led a multidisciplinary team of investigators from several departments across Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell’s Ithaca campus, the Boyce Thompson Institute, Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, and Northwell Health with specialized expertise in behavior, advanced gene sequencing techniques and the analysis of small molecules within cells.
Mice treated with antibiotics to reduce their microbial populations, or that were bred to be germ-free, showed a significantly reduced ability to learn that a threatening danger was no longer present. To understand the molecular basis of this result, the scientists sequenced RNA in immune cells called microglia that reside in the brain and discovered that altered gene expression in these cells plays a role in remodeling how brain cells connect during learning processes. These changes were not found in microglia of healthy mice.
“Changes in gene expression in microglia could disrupt the pruning of synapses, the connections between brain cells, interfering with the normal formation of new connections that should occur through learning,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Conor Liston, an associate professor of neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain & Mind Research Institute and an associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine.
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