Research Update #2 (Our Microbial Minds)

Update #2!!! I’ve finished my research (which consisted of watching TED talks, reading books, and reading lots of scientific articles). I feel like I now have a clear understanding of what the microbiota is and its role in the human body, modern day causes of dysbiosis, how the brain-gut axis works, and science linking gut microbes to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), anxiety/depressive disorders, and Schizophrenia. I ended up going beyond the initial scope of my research question and exploring the application of bacterial probiotics (also called “psychobiotics”) as a form of alternative medicine. Psychobiotics are a class of bacterial supplements specifically aimed at treating psychiatric conditions. While they are still very much in the research phase, there have been surprisingly promising results, especially on the ASD frontier.

It’s been interesting to conduct all of this research knowing that I’m not using it in a formal literature review, but rather trying to summarize the highlights while telling a scientifically accurate story. While reading scientific literature, I realized that figures and tables help scientists to substantiate their claims, but that data unfortunately has to be sacrificed when communicating science to the general public.

I thought I’d share my favorite (and one of the most famous) scientific experiments in this field that I came across: it’s an experiment conducted by a group of Canadian scientists at McMaster university in 2011. Essentially, the scientists raised two strains of mice who exhibited different levels of anxious behavior. They quantified the two distinct “personalities” of the mice through the platform test: they placed the mice on an elevated platform and measured how long it took the mice to step off. The group of confident/extroverted mice jumped off in only a few seconds, while the group of anxious mice paced back and forth for up to 4 minutes before jumping off. Then, the scientists performed a series of fecal transplants between the two groups, transplanting the gut microbes from the confident mice into the anxious mice and vice versa. They found that the confident mice with the anxious set of microbes now took significantly longer to step down from the platform, while the anxious mice with the confident set of microbes stepped down a full minute sooner than they had in the first round of the experiment. The scientists were also able to observe differences in the brain chemistry of the two groups of mice after the transplant; the anxious mice who received the confident microbes experienced an increase in the chemical BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), which scientists know to be very beneficial for learning and memory in humans. Crazy, right????

In terms of working towards my final project, I have written up a script for the informative movie I’m making. Additionally, I’ll use the research outline I’ve compiled to create an accompanying pamphlet/brochure. My goal is to take this broad field of scientific research and synthesize it so I can present people with information that directly relates to them (for example, steps they can take in their everyday lives to help establish a healthy microbial community!)