Study: Your Diet May Affect Your Brain

There may be a connection between gut bacteria and brain inflammation.

Photo by Alex Lau

Photo by Alex Lau

A recent study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) lends yet more weight to that old saying, you are what you eat.

Researchers from BWH examined connections between bacteria living in the gut and brain inflammation—which is commonly linked to brain disease—by studying mouse models of multiple sclerosis. The study adds to a growing body of microbiome research, with gut health now linked to everything from complexion to digestion to disease treatment.

In the BWH study, researchers analyzed astrocytes, a type of cell found in the brain and the spine, and identified a specific molecular pathway tied to inflammation in the brain. Then, by monitoring what the mice ate, researchers were able to see that tryptophan—an amino acid often associated with turkey, but actually found in a number foods—seemed to interact with that pathway in such a way that inflammation was reduced. Blood samples from human MS patients showed a deficiency in tryptophan, strengthening the hypothesis that certain nutrients may lead to increased or decreased brain inflammation.

“What we eat influences the ability of bacteria in our gut to produce small molecules, some of which are capable of traveling all the way to the brain,” explains corresponding author Francisco Quintana in a statement. “This opens up an area that’s largely been unknown until now: how the gut controls brain inflammation.”

Of course, there’s lots of research still left to be done; the BWH team plans to continue studying how diet affects the identified molecular pathway, ideally finding new ways to treat and diagnose disease based on those findings.

The study may be in its early stages, but emphasis on the gut and the microbiome is proliferating like never before. Research is still developing, but expect to hear a lot more on the topic in the months and years to come.