In a nutshell, recent studies are unveiling the contribution of intestinal pathogens in mental well being. Researchers are hoping to be able to channelize these profound results in discovering a superior treatment for mental illness.
Every day, we need to make new decisions. Some decisions are made using our analytical & logic-based thinking processes & for others, we rely upon our gut feelings. But have we ever wondered why emotion-based decisions mostly work as efficiently as analysis-oriented ones? How do our feelings connect with our guts? Is there any connection between the gut & the brain? The forest of question marks keeps growing.
But scientists are gradually uncovering facts that may lead to unprecedented progress in our understanding of gut-brain connection. Emerging shreds of irrefutable evidence are suggestive of gut microbes’ influence on signaling processes occurring in the brain & these astounding discoveries are paving new pathways to treat psychological disorders, aided by alteration of intestinal microbe composition.
Gut-Brain Psychic Connections
History pages indicate that ancient Greeks used to believe in the synergistic relationship between the gut & brain. They hypothesized the secretion of black bile to be responsible for mental disorders. The latest discoveries are zooming in on the intricacies of this old relationship. Researchers are able to reveal that some people with irritable bowel syndrome feel depressed, people with Parkinson’s disease often face constipation related ailments & autistic patients may suffer from digestion problems.
Although the mechanism of action is subjected to copious experimental studies, preliminary investigations show that this may proceed in two distinct pathways that are apparently mutually exclusive. Implicitly speaking, one may be seen as active influence & the other as passive.
Some microorganisms may secrete specific biomolecules that act as messenger & reaches the brain by overcoming the blood-brain barrier, a threshold semi-permeable membrane that filters out nonessential molecules & deter them from reaching the brain. These microbes may take part in chemical signaling & end up controlling those chemical reactions. It is an active influence pathway.
Otherwise, microbes stimulate the Vegas nerves that connect brain neurons with neuropod cells residing in the abdomen. These cells remain linked to nearby nerve cells by synapses & pass signals electrochemically. This is more like a passive influence pathway.
Microbiota Comes To Rescue
Gastrointestinal tract houses a variety of microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses, etc. The whole gut microbe count surpasses the total number of cells in the human body. Experimental observations demonstrate the impact of intestinal microbiota on brain activities. A survey study by UC Leuven Microbiologist Jeroen Raes makes a surprising claim that people who suffered from depression are deficient of certain two bacteria in their guts. Researchers have also asserted a link between depression & antibiotic drugs, but couldn’t relate the same with antifungal or antiviral medicines.
Psychological disorders are majorly caused due to shortfall of essential biomolecules (hormones, neurotransmitters). The levels of these biomolecules need to be adjusted to cure the disease. Direct drug administration is traditional but comes at a cost of side effects. In-situ production of those messenger molecules may alleviate those side-effects without any compromisation in efficacy.
This strengthens the fundamental idea of Psychobiotic treatment, a promising treatment facility where psychoactive chemicals are released in the brain by in-situ cultivation of certain gut bacteria colony. It’s different from traditional psychological treatment where psychoactive drugs are directly administered into the body. In this healing protocol, the bacteria population with the capability of releasing chemicals to cure particular diseases, are grown in the intestine. In laboratories, the culturing processes involve the deployment of specific composition of nutrients to favorably grow desired microbial colony.
Ushering New Therapeutic Protocol
The tailored protocol is quite novel & scientists are optimistic about its outstanding success. Neurophramacologist John Cryan & psychiatrist Ted Dinan, both associated with University College Cork, coined the term ‘Psychobiotics’. A set of probiotics (live bacteria populace), when ingested in right concoction & appropriate amount, might foster the growth of specific intestinal bacteria colony & relieve symptoms of disorder in the brain, bypassing immunological response from the immune system. The set of microorganisms is termed Psychobiotics.
Scientists working with the company, named Holobiome, have identified a set of bacteria that is capable of producing GABA, a neurotransmitter sharing intimate connections with the prefrontal cortex (frontier lobe of the brain) activities. A study by researchers at Weill Medical Center confirmed association of GABA levels in the brain with symptoms of depression.
Holobiome researchers have demonstrated that the GABA-producing bacteria were responsible for increased GABA concentration in mice brains. Currently, UC San Diago based microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert is testing neuromodulatory impacts of GABA secreting bacteria in rodents. These findings indicate that expanding bacteria colony (secreting GABA) may cure depression symptoms in rodents.
John Cryan & his colleagues conducted experiments to show that rodents (rats & mice in this case) with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, autism, schizophrenia could be treated well with fecal transplants of healthy human beings. Cryan anticipates imminent human trials from his decade-old experience in gut-brain signaling research. Holobiome founder Philip Strandwitz expects to start clinical trials as early as 2021.
Unanswered Pressing Questions
Although researchers are optimistic about a high degree of efficacy of psychobiotic treatment, a myriad of scientific questions are yet to be answered before proceeding for clinical studies. Apart from usual doubts of successful therapy translation from rodents to humans, eyebrows are being raised about their competencies in treatment without producing much side effects.
According to University of Illinois (Chicago) Biologist Beatriz Bernabe, psychobiome isn’t meant to be fit for all. The skepticism is backed by the knowledge that human gut microbiota is truly complex & varies human to human. It’s also a matter of concern that bacteria, being promoted for certain biomolecule secretion, may also produce some undesired chemicals that may cause side-effects like inflammation, intestinal pathogen imbalance, short-term neurological changes, etc.
Questions are also on the table seeking answers on whether these bacteria packages would be able to compete with traditional drug delivery methods. Direct drug infusion is presently more reliable than other in vivo productions of biomolecules.
It’s obvious that every nascent field faces a plethora of challenges & uncertainties. But pursuing those challenges leads to breakthroughs & epoch-making discoveries that shape the utilities of those fields. The domain of Psychobiome research is too young & too far from being established as a reliable method of mental illness treatments.
Companies like Holobiome, with a fistful of other peers & university research labs, are aggressively trying to demonstrate therapeutic success, supported by optimism from new observations. If they succeed, our guts will soon have the ‘guts’ in controlling our brains, the way we feel, think & react.
Psychobiome: Gut Has The Guts To Cure Psychological Disorders was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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