A Gut Feeling: How Bacteria Might Be Influencing Your Mental Health
Start writing a post
Health and Wellness

A Gut Feeling: How Bacteria Might Be Influencing Your Mental Health

"No one would ever say that someone with a broken arm or a broken leg is less than a whole person, but people say that or imply that all the time about people with mental illness." -Elyn Saks

10
A Gut Feeling: How Bacteria Might Be Influencing Your Mental Health
Stocksnap

I’ve always been fascinated with mental illness. A desire to learn more about the biological underpinnings of mental illness was one of several factors that drew me to neuroscience. I learned about their mechanisms, like how anxiety and mood disorders can occur when cortisol is not properly regulated, or how schizophrenia may be caused by overstimulation of dopamine receptors in the brain. These explanations were good for rationalizing the characteristics of these disorders, and they were sufficient for scientists to develop therapies for these illnesses. Even so, they leave one major question unanswered: why do mental illnesses occur? If mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances, what causes the chemical imbalances?

As far as biological explanations go, one of the more popular explanations for why mental illnesses occur has been genetics. At the surface, it makes logical sense; if genes are responsible for the machinery that regulates the chemicals in the brain, and if mental illnesses arise due to problems in this machinery, then genes should cause mental illness. I assumed this without question for some time until I came across a book by Harriet Washington, Infectious Madness: The Surprising Science of How We “Catch” Mental Illness. In this book, she presents a compelling counterargument to the once popular genetic theory. When looking at diseases with established genetic causes like Huntington’s disease (caused by inheritance of a dominant allele for the disease) or Down syndrome (caused by having three copies of chromosome 21), the rates of incidence among identical twins is nearly 100%. The rates of coincidence for conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, however, are significantly lower.

Source: E. Fuller Torrey, Ann E. Bowler, Edward H Taylor, and Irving I. Gottesman. Schizophrenia and Manic-Depressive Disorder. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

This determination aroused the interests of many neuroscientists. If one’s genes are supposed to be the reason for mental illness, why does it only affect just one identical twin and not the other? If the instructions for one’s biology aren’t to blame for the brain’s chemical imbalances, what is?

Well, the hypothesis explored in Washington’s book is that bacteria and other microscopic creatures may be implicated in the development of mental conditions. The idea is that mental illnesses could be caused by a bacterial presence or lack thereof. There are many studies that have examined this link. For example, Schizophrenia could be caused by a T. gondii infection, according to a study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases by Torrey and Yolken. The study explains that schizophrenia may occur when a child is exposed to the pathogen during the perinatal phase of its development, which includes the weeks leading up to and immediately following its birth. This infection can lead to issues later in life by depleting the number of glial cells, which help support and nourish neurons, and causing abnormal concentrations of dopamine and other chemicals in the brain.

Another example touched on in the book was the idea that the bacteria present in one’s gut can play a role in the development of mental illness. As explained by this article in the Scientific American by Jessica Fortner, the brain and gut have a codependent relationship in which the brain helps regulate the immune system’s affairs in the GI tract while the gut’s bacteria synthesize the chemicals used in various neurological processes. This relationship is explored in a plethora of studies, including one by Hoban et al in Neuroscience, which found that rats showed depressive behaviors, reduced spatial memory, and other significant behavioral changes following an antibiotic treatment, which depleted the bacteria in their gut. Without the gut bacteria providing the brain with some of the chemicals it needs to carry out its functions, the rats began exhibiting abnormal behaviors.

Despite the evidence building up in favor of a microbial basis for mental illnesses, it’s difficult to say for sure that we’ve found the answer to the question of why mental illness happens. There are other well-established theories; for example, there is a well-supported theory that epigenetics may be to blame for the development of mental illness. That is, there’s nothing wrong with how the biological “instructions” are printed on the page, but how they’re read and interpreted by the machinery that reads them (think about how an ink blot in the middle of a sentence can change the way you read it). Furthermore, it’s very much possible that the true answer lies somewhere in the middle of these theories, or perhaps in another theory or combination of theories. Additionally, even if this theory explains mental illnesses like anxiety and mood disorders, it might not explain why people develop personality disorders. Nonetheless, the development of these theories provides hope to many people. To patients, these theories could someday bring an end to mental illnesses; to neuroscientists and neuroscience students like myself, these theories take us further in our eternal hunt for an understanding of how our minds work.

Report this Content
This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
the beatles
Wikipedia Commons

For as long as I can remember, I have been listening to The Beatles. Every year, my mom would appropriately blast “Birthday” on anyone’s birthday. I knew all of the words to “Back In The U.S.S.R” by the time I was 5 (Even though I had no idea what or where the U.S.S.R was). I grew up with John, Paul, George, and Ringo instead Justin, JC, Joey, Chris and Lance (I had to google N*SYNC to remember their names). The highlight of my short life was Paul McCartney in concert twice. I’m not someone to “fangirl” but those days I fangirled hard. The music of The Beatles has gotten me through everything. Their songs have brought me more joy, peace, and comfort. I can listen to them in any situation and find what I need. Here are the best lyrics from The Beatles for every and any occasion.

Keep Reading...Show less
Being Invisible The Best Super Power

The best superpower ever? Being invisible of course. Imagine just being able to go from seen to unseen on a dime. Who wouldn't want to have the opportunity to be invisible? Superman and Batman have nothing on being invisible with their superhero abilities. Here are some things that you could do while being invisible, because being invisible can benefit your social life too.

Keep Reading...Show less
Featured

19 Lessons I'll Never Forget from Growing Up In a Small Town

There have been many lessons learned.

71464
houses under green sky
Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Small towns certainly have their pros and cons. Many people who grow up in small towns find themselves counting the days until they get to escape their roots and plant new ones in bigger, "better" places. And that's fine. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought those same thoughts before too. We all have, but they say it's important to remember where you came from. When I think about where I come from, I can't help having an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for my roots. Being from a small town has taught me so many important lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Keep Reading...Show less
​a woman sitting at a table having a coffee
nappy.co

I can't say "thank you" enough to express how grateful I am for you coming into my life. You have made such a huge impact on my life. I would not be the person I am today without you and I know that you will keep inspiring me to become an even better version of myself.

Keep Reading...Show less
Student Life

Waitlisted for a College Class? Here's What to Do!

Dealing with the inevitable realities of college life.

133485
college students waiting in a long line in the hallway
StableDiffusion

Course registration at college can be a big hassle and is almost never talked about. Classes you want to take fill up before you get a chance to register. You might change your mind about a class you want to take and must struggle to find another class to fit in the same time period. You also have to make sure no classes clash by time. Like I said, it's a big hassle.

This semester, I was waitlisted for two classes. Most people in this situation, especially first years, freak out because they don't know what to do. Here is what you should do when this happens.

Keep Reading...Show less

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Facebook Comments