By now, the idea that gut bacteria affect a person’s health is not revolutionary. Many people know that these microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism. The trend has become almost commonplace: New books appear regularly detailing precisely which diet will lead to optimum bacterial health.
But these microbes’ reach may extend much further, into the human brains. A growing group of researchers around the world are investigating how the microbiome, as this bacterial ecosystem is known, regulates how people think and feel. Scientists have found evidence that this assemblage—about a thousand different species of bacteria, trillions of cells that together weigh between one and three pounds—could play a crucial role in autism, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
“There’s been an explosion of interest in the connections between the microbiome and the brain,” says Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been studying the topic for the past five years.
Some of the most intriguing work has been done on autism. For decades, doctors, parents, and researchers have noted that about three-quarters of people with autism also have some gastrointestinal abnormality, like digestive issues, food allergies, or gluten sensitivity. This recognition led scientists to examine potential connections between gut microbes and autism; several recent studies have found that autistic people’s microbiome differs significantly from control groups. The California Institute of Technology microbiologist Sarkis Mazmanian has focused on a common species called Bacteroides fragilis, which is seen in smaller quantities in some children with autism. In a paper published two years ago in the journal Cell, Mazmanian and several colleagues fed B. fragilis from humans to mice with symptoms similar to autism. The treatment altered the makeup of the animals’ microbiome, and more importantly, improved their behavior: They became less anxious, communicated more with other mice, and showed less repetitive behavior.