Brock researcher explores the gut’s connection to mental health

Almost everyone living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) will experience depression, anxiety or other mental health challenge at some point in their lives. Increasingly, these conditions are being linked to what’s happening in their gut, says Charlis Raineki, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brock University.

Raineki and Tamara Bodnar, Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, are co-leading research examining how prenatal alcohol exposure affects gut structure, function and microbiota composition as well as how these factors affect the immune system and mental health.

This research is funded by the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Raineki is the first Brock researcher to be a lead investigator on an NIH grant.

“Understanding the mechanisms underlying mental health problems, and resilience to those challenges, is crucial for improving early intervention and long-term health and well-being for individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” says Raineki.

Research published last year by Raineki’s co-leader Bodnar used an animal model of prenatal alcohol exposure to show, for the first time, that prenatal alcohol exposure has a “long-lasting” impact on the gut microbiota composition.

In their NIH-funded research, the team will continue testing out their findings from animal models and begin translating this work in human adults — a study that is unprecedented, says Raineki.

The gut contains a collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes called microbiota. A healthy gut microbiota promotes ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and triglycerides for heart health, controls blood sugar, helps produce neurotransmitters that act as anti-depressants, regulates weight gain and impacts how the immune system responds to infections, among other benefits.

The ‘gut-immune-brain axis’ is a communication system connecting the gut microbiota to the brain and immune system. Proper regulation of this system is “critical for typical brain development and function,” says Raineki.

Too many bad microbes in the gut — most commonly caused by poor diet, sleep and physical inactivity — lead to a host of physical diseases as well as altered brain and immune system development, inflammation in the brain and body, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

“We are currently recruiting adults with FASD and unexposed controls to evaluate their mental health status and collect fecal samples to assess their gut microbiota composition,” Raineki says.

“We’re doing this study because we want to find out if the alterations in the gut microbiota composition is mediating the increased risk for mental health problems in individuals with FASD.”

The team is also exploring, through animal models, if and how drugs and fecal microbiota transplantation could increase gut health.

Fecal microbiota transplantation involves introducing stool from healthy donors into the intestinal tract of a recipient to re-colonize the gut with healthy microbiota. This procedure has been successfully used in individuals affected by various gastrointestinal disorders and is being considered as a possible treatment in many neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders.

In addition to their NIH-funded research, Raineki and Bodnar are currently heading up an international research team studying how prenatal alcohol exposure affects children’s immune function and gut microbiota.

“This research will provide novel insights into the possible role of gut microbiome in immune system alterations and increased risk for mental health problems following prenatal alcohol exposure and will inform future clinical strategies for improving long-term health and well-being in individuals with FASD,” says Raineki.

The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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