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Longevity Briefs: The Role of Gut Bacteria in Mental Illness

Posted on 15 October 2020

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of a novel research, medicine, or technology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Our bodies contain more bacteria than they do human cells, and we are finding that the bacteria in our guts have important interactions with the central nervous system, with profound consequences for our health. Many drugs aimed at treating mental health problems come with a host of side effects, and can lose effectiveness over time. Could the health of our gut bacteria affect our mental health, and if so, could we use probiotics to improve the microbiome and thereby treat mental health problems?

What did the researchers do: Since the year 2000, research has shown that exposure to stress can leave a lasting impact on the gut microbiome that persists after the stress period ends. Certain bacteria have been found to produce propionic acid, which inhibits the production of mood-boosting dopamine and serotonin. Others are able to affect the brain by influencing the activity of the vagus nerve, the ‘communications superhighway’ between the brain and the gut. We think that changes in the populations of these bacteria could contribute to the emergence of mental health problems.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: This research all seems to point to the potential of manipulating the gut bacteria to enhance mood and improve mental health. Small trials of probiotics and faecal transplants in humans are beginning to show promising results, including a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Full-blown clinical trials are expected to yield results in around two years. As we understand more about how different types of bacteria affect mood, depressed patients could potentially have their gut microbiomes sequenced so that their specific imbalance in microbial populations can be addressed.

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