Science Weekly: A Gut Feeling

The question might not be what does it affect, but what doesn’t it?

The human microbiome has become an area of heavy study in recent years, with new research pointing to connections between a healthy gut and everything from heart health to mental health and even sleeping patterns. With all this information suddenly available, it would seem there is a group effort to reveal the inner workings of our innards.

In fact, the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project  was formed in 2008 with that in mind – and to generate resources “that would enable the comprehensive characterization of the human microbiome and analysis of its role in human health and disease.”

Dietitians and researchers now often point out the benefits of prebiotics, probiotics and plant-based diets in our lives to improve gut health and connected physical and mental processes. These results, however, are relatively new and not studied long-term. These changes also sound like a lot of work and can be expensive.

So instead of what we can do for our guts, what if our guts are already doing things for us?

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that the human gut may play a prominent role in preventing Parkinson’s disease.

“Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that erodes motor control and balance over time. It affects some 500,000 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. The disease occurs when neurons—nerve cells—in the brain that control movement become impaired or die. Normally, these neurons produce dopamine, and when they are damaged or killed, the resulting dopamine shortage causes the motor-control problems associated with the disease.” – IowaNow, Sept. 14, 2016

By running trials on roundworms, the researchers found that their immune defenses responded resiliently to the introduction of the poison rotenone – which damages mitochondria in the worms’ neurons and those neurons’ deaths are linked to Parkinson’s – and disposed of many of the affected mitochondria. This immune response not only stopped the process leading to a loss of dopamine-producing neurons, but it originated from (you guessed it) the intestine.

The intestinal immune cells seem to be acting as sleuths, surveilling the mitochondria for defects. This distrust has a theory: since mitochondria originated independently from other organisms as a type of bacterium and were incorporated into cells in plants, animals, and fungi later in evolutionary history, those organisms may still think of them like an organ transplant – and be wary.

Either way, it’s pretty cool. The researchers hope to be able to extrapolate these findings from roundworms to mammals, and maybe someday us humans will benefit.

Read up on the full details in the paper published on Aug. 30 in Cell Reports. 

Yet in contrast, another researcher at the University of Louisville School of Medicine suspects that proteins made by gut bacteria might actually contribute to neurodegenerative diseases.

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