Imagine yourself as the head of a funding agency (like the National Institute of Health) in which your job is to look at proposals for research projects and decide what projects to award funding to. Based on your readings this term, discuss a research project (or projects) that you would be most excited about funding as they relate to learning more about microbial influences on human health. As part of your response, consider what are we likely to learn from the project and how that might be important in future healthcare decisions.
If I was the head of a funding agency and had some control as to what project I could fund, I think I would have to throw some money at the Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm shift in neuroscience. I think this project should be funded because it’s a new way of thinking about neuroscience. Its pretty amazing that the microbes in our gut have ways of interacting with our brains. The evolutionary formation of a complex gut microbiota in mammals has played an important role in enabling brain development and perhaps sophisticated social interaction. Genes within the human gut microbiota, termed the microbiome, significantly outnumber human genes in the body, and are capable of producing a myriad of neuroactive compounds.
So how does this communication work? There are several main pathways by which signals from the gut travel through the body and cross the blood-brain barrier. Some of those core pathways include the enteric nervous system (a part of the nervous system located within and governing the function of the gastrointestinal system), the vagus nerve (connecting the brain and gut), the immune system and hormones within the gut. Gut microbes are part of the unconscious system regulating behavior. Recent investigations indicate that these microbes majorly impact on cognitive function and fundamental behavior patterns, such as social interaction and stress management.
These recent investigations look promising as we find out more about this connection. The challenge for scientists is to learn how to manipulate gut-brain communication to treat psychiatric illnesses. Most previous studies on gut bacteria and mental health have focused on probiotics. Live, “good” bacteria that can be ingested in foods like yogurt or in supplement form, which have been shown to have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects. What if we could intervene in an alternative way other then probiotics. While doing more research I found a term called Physcobiotics. Psychobiotics is a new scientific term referring to any intervention that has an effect on mental health by way of changes in the gut microbiome. The larger question here, in medical, scientific, and legal terms, is that psychobiotics are not currently classified as a treatment. At most they are a dietary supplement. The answer to how and whether they should be regulated will emerge as we learn more about the effects of these substances on the central nervous system.
A great deal more research on humans is needed before real treatments are made available. In the meantime, some medical experts are concerned about the widespread marketing of probiotics to consumers to treat psychiatric issues. Consumers should beware of the many probiotics marketed online as cognitive enhancers or mood boosters. Will the gut microbiome add paradigm-transforming insights to our existing understanding of human brain function in health and disease, resulting in novel therapies, or will it represent an incremental step in understanding the inner workings of our brains (1)? This is were more funding could be useful to figure out just what works and what doesn’t. Human clinical trials are expesnive and time consuming so I would devote my funding to this research topic or this project so we can find out whats around the corner in this area of study.