Tremendous progress has been made in characterizing the bidirectional interactions between the central nervous system, the enteric nervous system, and the gastrointestinal tract. A series of provocative preclinical studies have suggested a prominent role for the gut microbiota in these gut-brain interactions. Based on studies using rodents raised in a germ-free environment, the gut microbiota appears to influence the development of emotional behavior, stress- and pain-modulation systems, and brain neurotransmitter systems. Additionally, microbiota perturbations by probiotics and antibiotics exert modulatory effects on some of these measures in adult animals. Current evidence suggests that multiple mechanisms, including endocrine and neurocrine pathways, may be involved in gut microbiota–to–brain signaling and that the brain can in turn alter microbial composition and behavior via the autonomic nervous system. Limited information is available on how these findings may translate to healthy humans or to disease states involving the brain or the gut/brain axis. Future research needs to focus on confirming that the rodent findings are translatable to human physiology and to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, autism, anxiety, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.
Emeran A. Mayer, Kirsten Tillisch, Arpana Gupta