The microbiome at birth becomes a compelling new target for neuro-psychiatric disorders in exploratory new NIH-funded research
More and more, the microscopic inhabitants of our gut are being shown to play a prominent role in human health. They aid digestion, metabolism and immune-system responses. But their influence hardly ends there. Instead, it extends into the farther reaches of our being, shaping who we are, how we feel, and how we respond to and relate to others.
Beginning at birth, new research suggests, gut microorganisms exert an influence on the development of brains and behavior. The depletion or imbalance of these microorganisms in mothers and newborn offspring may contribute to a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders in the future, as well as disorders of social behavior, such as autism.
In light of such findings, a newly launched NIH-funded study led by PBS researcher Jeffrey Alberts seeks to explore the development of brain and behavior in tandem with the microbiome with the ultimate goal of preventing the disabling consequences of microbiome dysfunction, or dysbiosis, at birth.
As a researcher in the neonatal intensive care unit in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital since 2012, Alberts has worked with mothers and many preterm infants. He has now assembled a highly collaborative team at IU to tackle a related interdisciplinary puzzle in a mouse model. Among the team members are Chris Harshaw, a faculty researcher in Alberts’ lab, PBS neuroscientist Cara Wellman and IU biologist Gregory Demas. Alberts’ Cincinnati colleague Ardythe Morrow, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, is also a collaborator, overseeing the genomic analysis of the mice microbiomes contained in their stool samples.
Together they will measure immune and neuro-endocrine responses, brain structures, as well as the behavior of mothers and infants, whose gut microbiota are altered by antibiotics or stress. The data they collect at different stages will ultimately enable them to form hypotheses about the causal pathways between these systems that might lead to problems with social behavior.