Gut feeling: NMR reveals PTSD link?

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  • Published: May 1, 2016
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: NMR Knowledge Base
thumbnail image: Gut feeling: NMR reveals PTSD link?

Mood is in your gut

Dr. John Bienenstock (left) and Dr. Paul Forsythe in their lab. The researchers are studying whether bacteria in the gut can be used to cure or prevent neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. John Bienenstock and Dr. Paul Forsythe

A nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, hints at a possible link between the bacteria growing in your gut and neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and perhaps even depression. In work funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) there is a suggestion that this might lead to novel approaches to prevention and perhaps even a cure.

John Bienenstock and Paul Forsythe, who work in The Brain-Body Institute at McMaster, are investigating intestinal bacteria and how these microbes can influence the human brain and thence mood. “This is extremely important work for US warfighters because it suggests that gut microbes play a strong role in the body’s response to stressful situations, as well as in who might be susceptible to conditions like PTSD,” explains Linda Chrisey, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department, which sponsors the research.

Our gastrointestinal tracts are host to trillions of microbes, often referred to as the gut flora and fauna, but now more properly termed, collectively as the gut microbiome. They are intimately involved in digestion, absorption of nutrients, formation of healthy faeces, regulating the immune system. Recent research has revealed that the microbiome also transmits and perhaps even receives signals to and from the brain that lead to changes in mood and behaviour.

For brains

This is not such a far stretch of the imagination as one might at first think, we don't talk of "butterflies in the stomach" as a euphemism for nerves for no reason, our guts respond to anxiety in often obvious ways, such as an unwanted loosening of the bowels. The ONR work is investigating whether this link is actually stronger than we think and operating in the opposite direction as modulated by the gut microbiome. The support of such research also pivots on whether mental and physical resilience in those involves in military action and undergoing dietary changes, sleep loss or disturbed circadian rhythms due to changing time zones or working in submarines, involves the gut microbiome.

Bienenstock and Forsythe have carried out experiments on laboratory mice rather than military personnel and showed that in these animals gut bacteria affect mood and demeanour in significant ways. The pair was also able to demonstrate how they were able to control the moods of anxious mice by feeding them healthy live microbes, probiotics, containing faecal material collected from calm mice. They used NMR, or in clinical circles "magnetic resonance" spectroscopy to track detailed changes in brain chemistry in non-stressed mice given the probiotic. MR spectroscopy is planned for the stressed mice, Bienenstock told us.

Microbiome imbalance

“What we found was an imbalance in the gut microbiota of the stressed mice,” explains Forsythe. “There was less diversity in the types of bacteria present. The gut and bowels are a very complex ecology. The less diversity, the greater disruption to the body.” Bienenstock adds that, “Not only did the behaviour of the mice improve dramatically with the probiotic treatment, but it continued to get better for several weeks afterwards.”

Both researchers said stress biomarkers, highlighted by NMR, might one day be used as a non-subjective diagnostic for unrecognised PTSD. Such patients might then be treated with probiotics and possibly even antibiotics to rebalance their gut microbiome.

The team has offered a critical commentary on the available evidence surrounding the gut microbiome and its link with mental health. Writing in the journal BMC Med they also identify gaps in our knowledge that might be filled and so lead to novel treatments.

Related Links

BMC Med 2016, 19, 58: "Moody microbes or fecal phrenology: what do we know about the microbiota-gut-brain axis?"

Can J Psychiatr 2016, 61, 204: "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Does the Gut Microbiome Hold the Key?"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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