New NIMH-Funded Study of the First to Examine Effects of Gut Bacteria on Child Brain Development

Child psychologist and research collaborator discusses the new study, and how the microbes in a child’s gut can impact their mental health.

By Katherine Gianni

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

What is your “gut feeling” anyway? Boston University child psychologist Nick Wagner and his peer research collaborators are ready to find out. In a first-of-its-kind study funded by a $3.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the team will explore how gut bacteria and brain development interact with each other to potentially make some people more susceptible to anxiety and depression later in life.

“The gut microbiome is a complex microbial ecosystem that has important effects on brain function and mental health,” Wagner said. “This research project brings together a multi-disciplinary team to examine the links between psychosocial stress, microbiome development across the first 4.5 years of life, brain functioning, and risk for anxiety.”

The five-year project will study children from infancy to about four and a half years old. Assessments will be conducted during lab visits at 15, 36, and 54 months of age and home visits at six and 24 months of age. Wagner explained that preliminary research conducted by his collaborators demonstrates that infants’ gut microbiome in the first month of life is associated with fear behavior a year later, as well as amygdala volume and functional connectivity.

“Drawing on our previous research examining children’s behavioral inhibition and other risk processes underlying the emergence and stability of children’s anxiety, our lab at Boston University will oversee the collection and analyses of observational and physiological assessment of children’s temperament and anxiety symptoms,” Wagner said. “We’ll also help to oversee other methodological and analytic components of the study.”

Researchers will be seeking to discover whether a greater diversity of gut bacteria can predict lower levels of anxiety symptoms in children and will be the first to explore possible two-way relationships between gut bacteria and anxiety symptoms over time.

The project is led by Cathi Propper at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and Rebecca Knickmeyer at Michigan State University. In addition to Boston University, the study involves collaborators from other peer-institutions, including the School of Education, FPG and the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, Michigan State University, The University of Wisconsin, and RTI International.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Professor Wagner at @nickjameswagner.

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