Could a healthy gut be the key to a healthy mind?

Brain Wave: Typically research into schizophrenia has looked at what's happening in the brain, but the key to a healthy mind could be found in the gut.
Brain Wave: Typically research into schizophrenia has looked at what's happening in the brain, but the key to a healthy mind could be found in the gut.

Could a healthy gut be the key to a healthy mind?

That’s the question researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) are keen to answer.

Lead researcher Dr Katrina Green said a 18-month pilot study would soon start, involving schizophrenia patients from the Shellharbour mental health service.

Gut instinct: IHMRI researchers Dr Katrina Green and Professor Xu-Feng Huang are part of a team looking at the link between bacteria and the brain. Picture: Supplied

Gut instinct: IHMRI researchers Dr Katrina Green and Professor Xu-Feng Huang are part of a team looking at the link between bacteria and the brain. Picture: Supplied

‘’We will be investigating the link between cognitive disfunction in people with schizophrenia, and their gut microbes (bacteria),’’ she said.

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‘’Recent research has shown that this bacteria – which we traditionally thought was there just to absorb nutrients and minerals – actually secretes neurotransmitters, the chemical signals that work in our brain.

‘’So we’re interested to see if there are alterations in the gut bacteria of people with schizophrenia who suffer cognitive deficits, compared to those without the condition.’’

Dr Green said the study could lead to new treatments for the condition which affects cognitive functions including memory loss, decision-making and attention span.

‘’Over the last 50 years we’ve been trying to figure out how schizophrenia occurs, how we can prevent it, how we can cure it or better treat it,’’ she said.

‘’We’ve been looking at the brain and using anti-psychotic medication to try and fix the symptoms.

‘’But there hasn’t been any major breakthroughs in improving these medications which are lacking – they can’t treat all the symptoms and some people don’t respond to them at all.

‘’So we’ve turned our sights on what’s going on in the gut. Once we identify what type of bacteria, and what changes are happening, then we can figure out new ways to fix that imbalance.

‘’That may be another medication, it may be a probiotic, or a particular fibre.’’

Dr Green said IHMRI researchers would use an advanced technique called genome sequencing to measure the gut bugs.

We’ve turned our sights on what’s going on in the gut.

Dr Katrina Green

‘’There are trillions of types of bacteria in the gut but with this particular technology we are able to pinpoint which types are present in each sample,’’ she said. ‘’The will allow us to identify which gut microbes we should target.’’

The research is being funded by an IHMRI Collaborative Project Grant involving UOW and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District.