Bacteria living in our guts have been linked with depression in a significant new investigation into the controversial connection between microbes and mental health.
The first population-level study on the link between gut bacteria and mental health has identified specific gut bacteria linked to depression, and provides evidence that a wide range of gut bacteria can produce neuroactive compounds.
The study published in the journal Nature Microbiology found that higher levels of two types of gut bacteria were consistently associated with better mental health. The research is at an early stage but the scientists believe that it could lead to the development of pills containing bacteria capable of guarding against mental illness.
If the preliminary finding stands up to further scrutiny, it could pave the way for new treatments for mental health disorders based on probiotics that boost levels of “good” bacteria in the intestines.
“The notion that microbial metabolites can interact with our brain – and thus behaviour and feelings – is intriguing, but gut microbiome-brain communication has mostly been explored in animal models, with human research lagging behind,” said Professor Jeroen Raes, a scientist at KU Leuven who led the study.
The authors also created a computational technique allowing the identification of gut bacteria that could potentially interact with the human nervous system. They studied genomes of more than 500 bacteria isolated from the human gastrointestinal tract in their ability to produce a set of neuroactive compounds, assembling the first catalogue of neuroactivity of gut species. Some bacteria were found to carry a broad range of these functions.
“Many neuroactive compounds are produced in the human gut. We wanted to see which gut microbes could participate in producing, degrading or modifying these molecules,” said PhD student and team member Mireia Valles-Colomer.
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