Mental Health and the Microbiome

June 30, 2016  |  By Cory Grand, PhD, PMP

This following paper: Microbiota and Neurological Disorders: A Gut Feeling came out last month, but it may not have been broadly circulated. At this point, it’s certainly not surprising that the microbiome plays a role in mental health, but I did find a few things of particular interest.

Butyrate, Epigenetics, and Mental Health

The authors talk about butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid by-product of gut microbial metabolism, in terms of its role as a histone deacetylase inhibitor (HDACi)… without going into too much detail, histone deacetylases are enzymes that impact gene expression by controlling access of the expression machinery to the DNA, part of the overall phenomenon known as “epigenetics”.

In the pharmaceutical world, we use HDACi to combat neurological disorders (valproic acid is one such therapeutic, used as an anti-epileptic) and cancer (vorinostat is employed in some cases of leukemia), and there’s evidence that this class of compounds may have use as anti-depressants.

It’s interesting that butyrate, one of many molecules produced by gut bacteria as they metabolize the fiber in our diet, is also an HDACi, and therefore probably plays a role in mental health.

Here at Wasatch Scientific, we consider butyrate-producing bacteria among several hallmarks of a healthy microbiome when we evaluate our clients’ products for their overall contribution to health, and this only serves to reinforce that practice.

Unhealthy microbiome and Neurological Disorders

The authors also point out that having an unhealthy interaction between microbiome and body (here called “dysbiosis”) can lead to neurological disorders, and may well represent one of the causes of developmental issues in children, including autism.

Although in an earlier publication ( we’ve seen that antibiotics can disrupt a healthy biome, it also follows that antibiotics can be used to control an unhealthy one; indeed, a study is brought to light in which children with autism spectrum disorder experienced improvement in their symptoms following vancomycin treatment.

The task then, as mentioned in that previous post, is to rebuild the microbiome with probiotics conducive to health, and to track the progress of this reconstruction (since not all probiotics are necessarily effective).

While this tracking can be carried out with whole-genome sequencing, this process is quite expensive and time-consuming; at Wasatch Scientific, we’ve developed an alternative method which is cost- and time-effective, and yields a much more understandable readout of microbiome health than the raw list of bacterial species which is the output of a sequencing study.

Microbiome and Astronauts

The last point that piqued my interest was the idea of… space travel. What are the effects of long periods in space on an astronaut’s microbiome? This has at least been recognized as a potential issue, as probiotics are part of the meal routine for astronauts, but how is their situation different from, for example, someone undergoing high-dose antibiotic therapy?

For a profession where hospitals and clinics are not an option, the consequences of dysbiosis could indeed be dire. The authors make reference to the possibility of “engineered” bacteria, not just for pioneers of this final frontier, but for those suffering from dysbiosis-related psychiatric and physiologic disorders.

We will continue to keep an eye on this continually-changing field and the advances that come from additional research. It is clear, however, that the study and modulation of the microbiome represents an increasingly important arm of medical science, both for the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries.

Read more blogs, and see how Wasatch can help you understand your product’s effect on the microbiome and more, at