#WSF18: Our Microbiome and the Brain

On Saturday at the World Science Festival, microbiologists David Relman, Jo Handelsman, Rob Knight, and Martin Blaser convened for a discussion on how the microbiome relates to our health. Our microbiome, the collective bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms that live in the digestive tract, allows us to digest food properly and fight off disease. Research suggests that an unhappy microbiome may contribute to autoimmune diseases, allergies, depression, and even Alzheimer’s.


From left: Moderator Emily Senay; David Relman, M.D.; Rob Knight; Jo Handelsman; and Martin Blaser, M.D. Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

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Active in the Lab and in the Community

Dana Alliance member Beverley Greenwood-Van Meerveld, Ph.D., director of the Oklahoma Center for Neuroscience and Presbyterian Health Foundation Chair in BevNeurosciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is as active in the community as she is in the lab, where she studies the connection between visceral pain—a dull, generalized pain emanating from internal organs—and anxiety. “I investigate how stress affects the gastrointestinal tract,” Greenwood-Van Meerveld says. “Drilling it down further, I’m asking the how early life stresses contribute to belly pain in adults.”

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New Cerebrum Story Outlines Relationship Between the Gut and Brain

From the time you are born, millions of bacteria from your mother, food, air, the family dog, and everything you touch start setting up camp in your body. In fact, these trillions of microbial partners—symbionts—outnumber our own cells by as many as 10 to one. The environment where these microorganisms reside is known as the microbiome, and most live in your colon, where they help signal your body to digest food, fight pathogens, break cholesterol down, and more.

The microbiome is the focus of July’s Cerebrum feature (posting on July 1): “Gut Feelings: Bacteria and the Brain.” Authored by Jane Foster, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Shutterstock_53447917
Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/shutterstock.com
Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the Brain-Body Institute at McMaster University in Canada, her story focuses on animal studies that have shown microbiota to be instrumental in how our brain develops. The gut-brain axis— sometimes referred to as the “second genome” or the “second brain”— could have implications in how we behave, react to stress, and respond to treatment for depression and anxiety.

Among the most exciting new frontiers in neuroscience, the microbiome is better known for its relationship to probiotics, the so-called “good bacteria” that has been synthesized in pill or capsule form or used in food products such as yogurt, dark chocolate, soft cheese, pickles, and more. Commonly found next to the vitamin supplements on supermarket or drugstore shelves, probiotics claim to support immunity and fix everything from bloat to skin trouble to digestive problems, and sales of anything having to do with “good bacteria” supplements have increased by $1 billion in the United States in the last two years alone.

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