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Certain Gut Bacteria Associated with Improved Learning in Toddlers

Theresa Lyons 07/26/2017
It’s a competitive world out there and everyone wants to give their child the best advantage possible...turns out bacteria can give a child quite an advantage. Let me explain…

Certain types of bacteria in the human gut are associated with higher cognition in infants. Scientists have concluded that there are particular strains of our gut microbiota that are associated with infants and toddlers having better gross motor skills, fine motor skills, visual reception, receptive language, and expressive language. Said another way…certain bacteria are associated with better cognition…in all 5 areas of cognition measured in typically developing children. How do we know that?

Let’s start with animals

Many scientists have used numerous animal models to establish the scientific fact that microorganisms inhabiting the gut influence neurodevelopment. In the lab, scientists have manipulated the gut microbiota of mice to cause anxiety and depression-related behaviors. Altered gut microbiota is well known to be present for those with autism and depression however no rigorous scientific studies have been able to identify how or when this alteration happens nor how the brain is exactly involved. And all this has interested a great team of scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lead by Professor Rebecca Knickmeyer. She says “We were inspired by studies in mice showing that manipulating the gut microbiome changed animal behavior as well as brain structure and chemistry.”

Poopy Diapers

The scientists devised an elegant and efficient way to see if the 1-year old gut microbiome was associated with cognitive outcomes at 1 and 2 years of age. There were two other long term infant studies going on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill so these scientists basically asked 89 of those parents to give them some poop from one poopy diaper and then the scientists had a lot of work to do in the lab…RNA amplicon sequencing…identification and relative quantification of bacterial taxa…some bioinformatic number crunching…and lastly a clustering algorithm…ahhh the days working in the lab…

Now there are 3 clusters

After analyzing the bacteria, having Mullen Scales of Early Learning for each child as well as MRI data, the scientists found the results could be grouped into three clusters:
  • Cluster 1 – relatively high abundance of Faecalibacterium, the lowest cognitive performance, and highest bacterial population diversity
  • Cluster 2 – relatively high abundance of Bacteroides, the highest cognitive performance, increased expression of genes related to “Metabolism of Cofactors and Vitamins”, decreased expression of genes related to “Cell Motility”, and lowest bacterial population diversity.
  • Cluster 3 – relatively high abundance of an unnamed genus in the family Ruminococcaccae

What does this all mean?

This study concludes that “variation in the human gut microbiome is associated with cognition” during the critical period of childhood development from 1 to 2 years old. Professor Knickmeyer says “I don't think we were surprised to find that the gut microbiota was associated with brain development, but we were certainly excited and gratified. The animal work in this area has been really compelling, but this is the first time an association between microbial communities and cognitive development has been demonstrated in humans.” So there seems to be an advantage related to cognition at age 2 if the gut has high levels of Bacteroides. Thankfully Dr. Knickmeyer and her colleagues plan to follow-up with these children at 4, 6, 8, and 10 years of age and see how else the gut microbiota changes along with cognition.

What about autism?

All this so far has pertained to typically developing children with no perceived intellectual disability. So let’s relate all this to autism. In 2013, scientists concluded that the gut microbiome could influence autism associated behavior in a mouse model. You can read the detailed science in this article: A probiotic can ease autism symptoms so why can’t you buy it? But to summarize, a specific strain of bacteria was able to improve autism-like behaviors, quickly. These scientists found that there was improvement in communication, repetitive behaviors, anxiety, and sensorimotor behavior when the mice were given the bacteria Bacteroides fragilis. Now how’s that fact related to the infant study? In the infant study Cluster 2 had the highest cognitive performance and it also had relatively the highest abundance of Bacteroides. Bacteroides is what both studies have in common!! Bacteroides fragilis improves autism behaviors in an autism mouse model and the genus Bacteroides is also associated with higher cognition in typically developing children. Yes, the bacteria in our gut has that much influence on our child's health and happiness! And the great thing is you can change the bacteria in your child’s gut easily by first changing what they eat.

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