Is there any truth to having a "gut feeling"? Read on …
At the Exponential Medicine conference I attended in San Diego a few weeks ago, a number of presenters talked about the microbiome. This is a reference to the largely unaccounted for 100 trillion microorganisms housed inside your body, totaling 90 percent of your cells and 99 percent of your genes.
As Larry Smarr, Director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, told his Exponential Medicine audience, we need to "map out the totally unknown biological space inside us."
The NIH is on the case with its Human Microbiome Project, launched in 2008. The money question, from our point of view, was framed four years ago by Thomas Insel, head of the NIMH. In a 2010 blog post, he asked:
Do infectious agents influence the development of autism, anxiety, or mood disorders?
He went on to say that this is a "frontier area" for NIMH research, and that microbiomics may prove important in understanding and treating mental disorders.
What we already know is that the human gut hosts its own independent nervous system, and that this "second brain" communicates with our "other" brain via the vagus nerve. Significantly, we are born with sterile guts. It could be that our brain circuitry is influenced by the microbial populations we pick up along the way. For instance, in one highly publicized 20011 study (Bercik et al), researchers altered the gut microbe population in a strain of timid mice. The change turned them more bold and adventurous, and increased BDNF levels in the brain’s hippocampus.
This suggests a whole new area of diagnosis and treatment based on manipulating the wildlife inside our digestive tract, but for this to happen we need to know a lot more.
At the Exponential Medicine conference, Dr Smarr made reference to "big data," a theme taken up by Jessica Richman, CEO at uBiome. Currently, medical research is based on small sample sizes, typically 200 to 300 subjects. But "crowdsourcing" principles can exponentially increase those numbers and enable us to spot patterns and isolate culprit microbes.
Already, says Ms Richman, personal microbiome tests are available for $87. The potential exists for individual readings to feed into big data readings, which in turn may translate into precise and individual treatments.
In the meantime, there is talk of probiotics to improve the fauna in your gut and intestines. This may involve eating more Greek yogurt or taking supplements. Not exactly precise and individual, but who knows?
One thing, though, we know for certain: It is certainly much easier to tinker with our gut than it is our brain. Imagine, if we can produce profound changes with such a minimally invasive procedure. Just imagine. Some people already are.