The Brain-Bacteria Chatline

Part 1 of 2

Science has only scratched the surface of the deep relationship between the human body and the microbiome and microbiota, the trillions of microbes that inhabit the human gut. This myriad of microorganisms includes archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes, fungi and viruses. Research is also suggesting that there is communication coming from within this inner life.

The largest microbe population is bacteria, originally estimated to be 10 times the 30 to 40 trillion cells that make up a human body. However, that ratio is being questioned as microbiome research continues. And even though the thought of your body containing so many of these “bugs” might give you the creeps, bacteria live inside of you for good reasons.

The Bacterial Balancing Act

Just how healthy you are is said to be related to both the number of bacteria and the variety of species in your gut. It’s as though your intestinal tract offers the perfect home for these microbes to live, thrive and be as good as bacteria can be. In return, they do whatever they can to make sure this good situation lasts by helping to keep your body healthy.

Of course, each person’s microbial makeup is different, but healthy individuals have similar profiles. But those whose microbiota is lacking in numbers and diversity have increased susceptibility to health disorders:

With the mind-boggling realization that a bacterial imbalance may contribute to autism in children or cause people to become depressed, it’s no wonder that science is so focused on the relationship between the brain and what lives in the gut.

Look Who’s Talking

One of the many fascinating discoveries is the communication that goes on back and forth between bacteria and the brain to modulate body health. This bidirectional channel of interactions is primarily through the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system. Plus, there is “side-talking” going on with other body systems—immune, digestive, etc.—because everything is connected.

Still, so much remains unknown, which is why the gut-brain axis (GBA) is now sometimes referred to as the brain-gut-microbiome axis. This brain-bacteria relationship remains at the forefront of microbiome research. There’s even thought that there could be a microbiome in the brain. If true, it means that the brain and bacteria are even closer that ever considered before.

The First Example of a Brain-Bacteria Chatline?

Looking at the history of studying at the gut level points to a dubious doctor-patient relationship that began in June of 1822 at Michigan’s Fort Michilimackinac.

A French Canadian fur trapper by the name of Alexis St. Martin suffered an accidental gunshot wound that left a gaping hole leading directly into his stomach. The only physician on Mackinac Island was William Beaumont, who became the accidental father of gastroenterology as a result of this bizarre wound that wouldn’t fully close.

Alexie St. Martin allowed himself to be a guinea pig because he was no longer able to work as a trapper. He signed an “I’m-a-medical-experiment” contract that he couldn’t read in exchange for a job as a handyman.

Dr. Beaumont studied the hole—medically known as a fistula—for ten years, observing digestion directly whenever Alexis ate food or . . . when the good doctor dipped food on a string into his patient’s stomach and then pulled it out to examine how much of it had been digested.

One of Beaumont’s many noted observations was that his patient’s mood affected digestion speed. Food broke down slowly when Alexie was in an irritated state of mind. Unknowingly at the time, this was a visible (and some would say really gross) first indication of the possible chatting that goes on between the gut and the brain almost two centuries before the concept of the microbiome came into being.

(. . . to be continued . . .)

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