It was 7 June 2018 and I was half way through my first study week on San Servolo island in Venice, Italy, studying an Advanced Course on Microbiota and the Brain with the Neuroscience Society of Advanced Studies (NSAS).
It had been a great start to the week immersing myself in learning.
Microbiota and the Brain
My first week was Microbiota and the Brain, and we were so lucky to have an amazing faculty for the week from around the world, including some of the leading researchers in this field John Cryan, Jane Foster and Rochellys Diaz Heijtz. The field is relatively new, yet there is a lot of ongoing exploration into, and explanation of, this fascinating area that could provide breakthroughs into everyday issues we experience.
I had already explored some of the recent books on the topic, and can recommend “10% Human” and “Superhuman” if you are keen to delve into things a little more. At NSAS I was exposed to detailed research behind the scenes – research into DNA, bacteria, cytokines, T-cells, and a myriad of microbes that live inside us, such as Prevalla and Lactobaccilius reuveri among others.
We heard from experts in research areas such as Alzheimer’s, autism, multiple sclerosis, obesity, dementia, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac, Parkinson’s, brain injury, strokes and a whole host of autoimmune diseases. I even learnt that when it comes to cancer, chemotherapy cannot work for some people if the right microbes are not in their body to process it. It is quite wonderful and mind-blowing how much and also how little we know.
My job, as always, is to connect the dots and make the science simple.
For instance, we know that social behaviour is mediated by both oxytocin and the microbiome. This means that if you are missing particular bacteria, you may exhibit socially avoidant behaviour, i.e. you may not be keen to be around people and may therefore isolate yourself. This is important as we know that social connection is essential for human flourishing.
This for me links to the wonderful ‘ripple effect’ work of Christakis and Fowler and their ‘three degrees of happiness’ (or obesity or smoking). There may be a link to oxytocin and bonding in this research, yet could there also be a link to exchange of bacteria? Possibly?
Another example is that emotions change the chemical make-up of our body, including our microbiome – did you know that anger and stress do more than just release adrenaline and cortisol, and that they actually change the bacteria in your gut?
The implications are that if we are unable to manage our emotions, or our stress response, we are actually influencing the microbiome, the microRNA and potentially the ability of our body to process nutrients and make proteins.
The research suggests that under stress changes in the gut of a mouse take only six days to reach the brain. I wonder what that means for us as humans? Think about the last time you were stressed, angry, anxious and/or depressed. How long did it stay in your system? Maybe just a few minutes or hours?
Or (outside of your awareness) did that stress have a significantly detrimental impact on your microbes that will gradually shift your overall genetic make-up? After all, 90% of you is actually made up of bacteria. Sounding far-fetched, yet new research is indicating the power of this bacteria in so many areas.
Another link, which fascinates me and is not being researched yet, is the connection between Ellen Langer’s mindfulness vs mindlessness, or Kelly McGonigal’s research on stress, which emphasises that our perception and categorisation of what we experience has an impact on the outcome.
It makes me question.... could it be that a stressful event that changes the microbiome of one person, does not change the microbiome of another person, based on their perception of the situation?
I love that eventually emotional intelligence, positive psychology and neuroscience will have to come together in the research, just as we have been doing at the Langley Group for 15 years!
Stay tuned for more on my journey into ‘Microbiota and the Brain’...
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