Infant Gut Microbiome May Influence Cognitive Development

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A new study, published in Biological Psychiatry, suggest babies with high levels of the bacteria gene Bacteroides, perform better in cognitive tests.

Trying to find a relationship between brain development and the gut microbiome, researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, in the lab of Rebecca Knickmeyer, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, collected 89 fecal samples from 1-year-old children. Based on similar microbial communities, the samples were analyzed then separated into three groups.

A year later, after the children turned 2, researchers assessed the cognitive performance of each child using the Mullen Scales of Early Learning – a test that observes language development, gross motor skills and perceptual abilities.

Researchers found children with high diverse gut microbiomes did not perform as well as those with less. In addition, researchers also found children with high levels of the bacterial gene Bacteroides had higher cognitive scores.

“We had originally predicted that children with highly diverse microbiomes would perform better — since other studies have shown that low diversity in infancy is associated with negative health outcomes, including type 1 diabetes and asthma,” said Knickmeyer. “Our work suggests that an ‘optimal’ microbiome for cognitive and psychiatric outcomes may be different than an ‘optimal’ microbiome for other outcomes.”

While unable to determine the link to brain development and gut bacteria, researchers were able to determine the timing for early intervention.

“This is the first study to show that cognitive development is associated with the microbiome, and so it’s the very first step,” said Alexander Carlson, an MD/PhD student in Knickmeyer’s lab and first author of the paper. “We’re not really at the point where we can say, ‘Let’s give everyone a certain probiotic.’ But we did have a few big takeaways from what we found. One was that when measuring the microbiome at age 1, we already see the emergence of adult-like gut microbiome communities — which means that the ideal time for intervention would be before age 1.”

Knickmeyer added “big picture: these results suggest you may be able to guide the development of the microbiome to optimize cognitive development or reduce the risk for disorders like autism which can include problems with cognition and language. How you guide that development is an open question because we have to understand what the individual’s microbiome is and how to shift it. And this is something the scientific community is just beginning to work on.”

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 7/24/2017

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