MS and gut bacteria: more than a gut feeling?

Gut bacteria is a hot topic in health. Gut-friendly recipes and diets are becoming more and more popular, and supermarket shelves are bursting with probiotic yoghurts, drinks and tablets.

But, unlike with many diet crazes (the baby food diet comes to mind), there is a growing supply of evidence supporting the role of these tiny organisms in health and disease.

Gut bacteria have already been proven to play a role in conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and obesity. As these are illnesses related to the gut, this may not come as such a surprise, but what may be more surprising is that the focus of gut bacteria research is moving further away from the gut and closer to the brain. There is for example, growing evidence that the gut plays a part in conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.

So, what about MS?

A recent study in mice by Harvard University investigated the possible connection between gut bacteria and MS.

In MS, the immune system attacks the protective layer which sits around the nerve cells in the brain and in the spinal cord; a process called inflammation. Two types of brain cell are involved in inflammation and they are called microglia and astrocytes.

The study found that microglia produce certain proteins which bind to astrocytes. One of the proteins called TGF alpha stops astrocytes from causing inflammation when it binds (yay!), while another protein, called VEGF-B, increases inflammation when It binds (boo!).

What’s the gut got to do with it?

The researchers wanted to find out what causes the initial release of VEGF-B from the microglia, to see if there was a way of stopping it from causing the inflammation. They were able to identify certain molecules that bind to the microglia and cause the release of both TGF alpha and VEGF-B. They found that these molecules are produced by gut bacteria when they break down an amino acid called tryptophan, which is found in many foods, especially dairy products.

By binding to the microglia, the molecules created by the gut bacteria can stop them from causing inflammation and therefore stop them from damaging the cells in the brain.

Following this discovery, the researchers studied human brain tissue as well and found that it featured similar molecules and ways of working.

What does this mean for me and my MS?

This research shows that molecules produced by the gut can travel to the brain and the spinal cord and potentially protect the cells from attack.

A lot more research is needed before any final conclusions can be made, so there’s no need to go out and buy a 20-pack of probiotic yoghurts quite yet. But researchers are hopeful that continued investigation could lead to new strategies and possibly even treatments to slow down the development of MS.

So watch this space – the gut could be making a comeback…(teria).

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