Researchers have long known that the bacteria living in your gut can “talk” to your brain. Gut microbes, which collectively make up what’s called the gut microbiome, can have a significant impact on mood and cognition ― leading experts to deem the microbiome a new frontier in neuroscience.
Now, the challenge for scientists is to learn how to manipulate gut-brain communication to treat psychiatric illnesses.
Most previous studies on gut bacteria and mental health have focused onprobiotics. Live, “good” bacteria that can be ingested in foods like yogurt or in supplement form, which have been shown to have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects.
But in a recent paper published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience, Oxford psychiatrists urge the scientific community to look beyond probiotics to consider a wider class of “psychobiotics” ― a new scientific term referring to any intervention that has an effect on mental health by way of changes in the gut microbiome.
“We have suggested that any intervention that has a psychological effect through changes in the gut microbiome, is potentially a psychobiotic,” Dr. Philip Burnet, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. “This may include diet and exercise, both of which affect the bacterial communities in the gut, and both influence mood and cognition.”
So far, the research on psychobiotics is still preliminary. Studies have shown that increasing the amount of “good” bacteria in the gut can curb inflammation and cortisol levels, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, lower stress reactivity, improve memory, and even lessen neuroticism and social anxiety. However, most of these studies were conducted on mice, and more research on humans is needed.
“Those studies give us confidence that gut bacteria are playing a causal role in very important biological processes, which we can then hope to exploit with psychobiotics,” Burnet said in a statement.