October 20, 2021

Microbes in the mammalian gut appear to play a major factor in the landscape of chemical processes in the body and may influence communication between the gut and the brain. This is according to new research from environmental science experts at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Dr. Kun Lu

Dr. Kun Lu

Published this week in Nature Communications, the study was performed in the lab of Kun Lu, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering, and included work from graduate researcher Yunjia Lai, MS, postdoctoral researcher Chih-Wei Liu, PhD, doctoral students Yifei Yang and Yun-Chung Hsiao, and statistician Hongyu Ru.

Mammalian bodies are host to hundreds of trillions of microbes known as microbiota, and most can be found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Research has revealed that these complex and metabolically active microbes can be crucial intermediaries in the physiological processes of their hosts, influencing things like energy harvest and immune cell development. They have even been linked to neurological and psychiatric processes and disorders.

While recent studies suggest that microbiota regulate brain function with some molecular cues, researchers know very little about the overall biochemical landscape of communication between microbiota, the gut and the brain – called the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.”

To gain a clearer picture of these chemical processes, the research team used high-coverage metabolomics to comparatively profile feces, blood sera and cerebral cortical brain tissues in mice. In each of these mediums, the team found specific metabolic signatures related to microbiota, yielding hundreds of identified metabolites including 533 altered for feces, 231 for sera and 58 for brain, with numerous significantly enriched pathways involving aromatic amino acids and neurotransmitters. Through a process of multicompartmental comparative analyses, they identified microbiota-derived metabolites that were potentially involved in interorgan transport and the gut-brain axis.

“This study aims to provide a biochemical blueprint for understanding signaling molecules in gut-brain interactions,” Lu explained. “The data would be very useful for the broad research community to further investigate the roles of microbiome in regulating brain functions and numerous mental diseases in humans.”

Future studies will examine the effects of modulation of the gut microbiome and associated signaling molecules in preventing or treating neurological disorders.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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