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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

Gut Feelings—The Relationship Between Your Brain and Belly are a Two-Way Street

Many are hearing more and more about how the “good bacteria” in our guts has an impact on our overall health.  But how do these bacteria impact our central nervous systems? KSMU’s Theresa Bettmann visited Jordon Valley Innovation Center (JVIC) to find out what local scientists are learning about the biomes in our bellies.

Credit Theresa Bettmann / KSMU
Scientist Rhy Norton meticulously loading billions of pieces of bacterial DNA

Inside a lab near downtown Springfield, I observe a machine that resembles that of a small fish aquarium hooked up to several high-tech electronic devices. Scientist Rhy Norton is meticulously loading billions of pieces of bacterial DNA with a syringe-like device into several tiny slots in the machine. Within 24 hours he says it will produce a molecular fingerprint. 

Norton is junior research scientist with Missouri State University’s Center for Biomedical and Life Sciences at JVIC.  He says by creating and comparing these fingerprints or “snapshots” scientists are better able to identify different bacterial species.  He explains that our gut microbiota consists of more than 100 trillion bacterial cells.  To put that into perspective, that is 10 times more cells than what makes up the human body. 

Norton says they are studying how the presence or lack of certain kinds of bacteria is connected with various health conditions, particularly the effects on the central nervous system. He says that most conditions are not caused by simply one type of bacteria, but rather an imbalance of the whole “ecosystem” that lives within a person’s gut.

“It may seem a little far-fetched to some individuals that the bacteria living in your gut are capable of changing the way you think or feel.  But it’s really not that far-fetched.  One of the predominant mechanisms through which this is done is by the production of microbial neurometabolites.  These are essentially compounds that are produced by the bacterial living in your GI tract that are identical to neurotransmitters that your body makes,” Norton explains.

Many bacteria in the gut produce dopamine and serotonin, Norton explains, and they have an immediate impact on the central nervous system when released into the blood stream.  He adds gut microbiota train our immune systems to handle allergens, regulate how our bodies metabolize and store fat, harvest or produce vitamins, and create inflammation or other symptoms. Norton says the easiest way to alter microbiota in our guts is through changes in diet. 

“I think for a long time people have thought about the connection between the gut and brain as a one-way road.  So we all know the brain can influence how your gut is working.  Lots of times you get anxious and you can see that reflected in how your gastrointestinal system is operating.  And we’re trying to get people to realize it is a two-way street.  In other words, what’s going on in your gut can influence your cognitive abilities, your anxiety levels,” says Norton.

Norton calls the gut the “forgotten organ.”  Referring back to the snapshots from the experiment, he says many physical conditions are directly related with bacterial systems.  Conditions like obesity, diabetes, allergies, or even chronic stress have very different subsets of bacteria that correlate with just those conditions, says Norton. 

“I think an individual would hopefully gain an appreciation for what they put in their body and how it can influence their gut—and how that can mean a lot more than maybe gastrointestinal discomfort.   Those changes can resonate throughout the rest of the body and really affect so many different systems,” says Norton.

Better understanding of those correlations leads to better management of these conditions.

In the future, Norton shares, analyzing gut microbiota may become part of standard diagnostic testing to diagnose and treat many conditions.

Theresa received her undergraduate degree in sociology at Missouri State University, as well as her Master's degree in Social Work at MSU. Theresa enjoys writing, drawing, reading, music, working with animals, and most of all spending time with her family. She wishes to continue to use her experiences, combined with her pursuit of education, to foster a sense of empowerment and social awareness in the community. Theresa loves working with KSMU and attributes her passion for NPR, and love of learning, to her father.