When Stephen Collins, MBBS, received his first clue that the gut bacteria found naturally in our intestines might both heighten and relieve anxiety, he dismissed it.
Lab techs reported that the mice on antibiotics were acting strangely, and Collins, the director of the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute at McMaster University in Ontario, thought nearby construction must be upsetting the animals. It was only after a repeat experiment produced the same anxious behaviors—and animals on probiotics seemed calmer—that Collins realized he might have uncovered a centerpiece of all-too-common mood disorders.
Since then, Collins’s investigations have continually found that altering rodents’ gut microbiota can change mood and behavior. For example, mice raised “germ-free” showed abnormally hyperactive behaviors that calmed down after they were colonized with bacteria from healthy mice; and if the gut bacteria of normal mice were perturbed through prolonged antibiotic use, the mice became anxious.
Collins cautions that it’s too early to eschew antibiotics or give yourself a fecal transplant, as demonstrated on YouTube. But research on humans has bolstered the connection, and Collins is now studying whether bacteria can soothe depression in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.
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