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Science says your gut

feeling isnt a metaphor

(Dim Dimich/Shutterstock)
The brains powers are a little overrated. To keep your body
going, you dont need a functioning brain, but you do need
something to provide energy. Enter the gut.
We may not give it much thoughtbecause, literally, it happens
without conscious thoughtbut the process of extracting energy
from food is an intricate one. It involves hundreds of millions of
neurons that arent in your brain. Those neurons are found in the
outer layers of your gut, and the enteric nervous system they
form is so powerful that it can work without any direct input
from the brain.
The actions this nervous system performs include ensuring food
passes at regulated speed, getting the right juices secreted to
make digestion easier, and managing the mucus of the intestinal
lining. These are crucial functions. And in the past decade, we
have learned just how much of an impact the gut can have on the
rest of the body and the mind.

Command and control

For instance, the processes the enteric nervous system performs
also gives it some control over the trillions of microbes that sit in
your gut. Many of them are essential for our health, because they
help us extract nutrients that we wouldnt otherwise be able to,
and some even fend off infections.
One way enteric neurons control these microbes is by changing
the thickness of the mucus lining. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg,
researchers at Stanford University and authors of The Good
Gut, say this process is similar to how creatures adapted to a
moist rain forest would struggle in the desert. Depending on
what kinds of microbes are best suited for a job, the mucus lining
can determine their population in the gut.
Layers of the gastrointestinal tract.(Goran tek-en/Wikimedia CC-BY)
And theres more. It had been suspected that what happens in
the gut could have an impact on the brain. Now we have found
too many correlations to ignore the gut-to-brain connection.
A 2011 study split a group of mice based on their personality:
timid vs adventurous. Then the researchers took another set of
mice with microbe-free guts. In half, they installed the
microbiome of timid mice, and in the other half they placed the
microbiome of adventurous mice. Lo and beholdthose germ-free
mice took on the personality traits of the microbiome-owner.
In a 2013 study, using another mice model, researchers at the
California Institute of Technology found that mice with autistic
featuressuch as stress, anti-social nature, and troubling
gastrointestinal symptomshad much lower levels of Bacteroides
fragilis than normal mice did. Worse still, when injected a
chemical (4-ethylphenylsulphate) found in the guts of autistic
mice in to normal mice, they developed autistic symptoms too.
In a 2014 study, researchers at University College Cork found that
mice born via C-sections had a greater risk of suffering from
depression than mice born vaginally. Turns out, the C-section
mice had far less diverse species of microbes in their gut, most
likely because they couldnt pick up the beneficial microbes
found in their mothers vagina.
Although mice are easier to manipulate, such connections are not
limited to mice alone. In a 2013 study, researchers at Arizona
State University found that humans with behavioral conditions,
such as autism, had significant differences in their gut
microbiome as compared to more normal humans.
Until now, however, these gut-brain connections have been mere
correlations. With some help from tapeworms, a new study
changes that.

Tapeworms to the rescue

One of the connecting factors between the brain and the gut has
been the immune system. Neurological diseases, such as
Alzheimers and multiple sclerosis, are linked to changes in the
immune system, and auto-immune diseases of the gut, such as
Crohns disease, are linked to mental illnesses.
Now a new study published in published in Brain, Behavior and
Immunity has made use of this immune-system connection to
show how the gut can have an impact on the brain. To trigger
this connection, Staci Bilbo, a neuroscientist at Duke University,
and her colleagues used tapeworms and showed how these nasty
creatures can stop memory loss.
Hymenolepis diminuta.(CDC)
She split a group of 30 rats in two: those infected with
the Hymenolepis diminutaworm and those without. Then, in both
groups, she induced a second infection aimed at increasing the
production of a brain signaling chemical called IL-1. The
chemical is usually beneficial, but in excess it can cause damage
and has been associated with brain disease.
To test their memories, the rats were put in a room and were
allowed to become familiar with it. Then Bilbo gave them a shock
so that they would connect the room with bad memories. The
next day she re-introduced both wormed and un-wormed rats in
the room.
She found that mice with tapeworms were twice as likely to recoil
from the room as rats that did not have worms. So the tapeworm
infection seems to have protected the mice from memory loss, as
compared to infection-free mice.

Good gut, good brain

The reason was that mice with tapeworm infection had already
had an immune response, which kept the levels of IL-1 low
when a second infection came along. Lower levels of IL-1 in the
brain ensured the formation and retention of memories, more
than in rats without the worms. Those who hadnt had the
infection produced far greater levels of IL-1.
This kind of effect is called biome depletion, where a lack of
exposure to infections causes immune systems to overreact to
infections later in life. Thus exposure to some microbes can help
avoid such a response, and, in the case of the rats, help prevent
memory loss.
To be sure, tapeworm infections can be nasty, and nobody is
recommending that you ingest some to protect against memory
loss. The circuitous route taken was to come to a definitive
conclusion that the changes in the gut can trigger changes in the
The evidence from Bilbos study is among the first to draw a
causal link. And more is sure to come. In 2014, the US National
Institutes for Mental Health spent about $1 million on research
looking at the microbiome-brain connection.
In comparison to the many billions of neurons in the brain, the
guts hundreds of millions might not seem like much. And, yet,
its quite clear gut feelings are no longer just a metaphor.