Culture Volume 35 Number 3

Jane A. Foster1

Gut microbiota and its effect on behavior

Our microbiota and its role in our health is increasingly in the news. An area of particular interest is the link between bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and our mental health. Researchers have established a link between gut bacteria and anxiety-like behaviors in animal models, and with emotional brain regions in healthy people. 

Here, we review some of the recent findings related to how microbiota influences anxiety-like behavior, the possible pathways and mechanisms that connect the microbiota to the brain, and the potential of probiotics in countering psychological stress.

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About the author

Dr. Jane Foster

Dr. Jane Foster is a member of the faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She holds a research appointment at the Brain-Body Institute, a joint research initiative between St. Joseph's Healthcare, Hamilton, and McMaster University, created to advance the understanding of relations between the brain, the nervous system and bodily disorders. In addition, she is a Scientific Associate with the University Health Network in Toronto, ON. Her research on the role of immune-brain and gut-brain interactions on neurodevelopment hopes to lead to a better understanding of how these relationships contribute to psychiatric disorders such as neurodevelopmental disorders, anxiety and depression.

Dr. Foster received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1996. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, she spent four years as a research fellow in the Section on Functional Neuroanatomy at the National Institute of Mental Health, in Bethesda, MD. At NIMH her research focused on neural-glial interactions and the roles played by immune signaling molecules in the brain during pathophysiological changes.

An interview with the author

Our research in the gut-brain field has demonstrated that microbiota are important to the development of brain systems in the hypothalamus that are important to stress reactivity, energy balance, and behavior. In particular, our work to date has established a link between gut microbiota and anxiety-like behavior. In addition, we have established that the adaptive immune system and in particular the T cell contributes to stress reactivity and behavior. Our current work is aimed at linking specific gut microbiota to features of behavior, to specific brain regions (using magnetic resonance brain imaging), and to stress reactivity.

The public and the scientific community is totally engaged in the topic of microbiota leading to unprecedented attention to our field of research – this is very exciting and provides an opportunity for our results to have a broader impact across many disciplines.

My work bridges the gap between the body and the brain – this is an exciting and dynamic place to work. It allows me an opportunity to network and collaborate with scientists and physicians from many different areas to conduct large-scale translational studies. I most enjoy sharing the news of our research discoveries and the opportunity to meet and interact with other great scientists in the field.

Neuroscientists and others are only just starting to study the ways that microbiota influence psychology – there are several possible pathways so it will take some creativity and innovation in research to simplify the complex web of information. Although speculative in nature, gut microbiota and its role in host metabolism may provide an evolutionary advantage to commensals that modulate gut-brain signalling in a way that balances diet/eating behavior and emotional regulation to support healthy living.