Finding links between the gut and the developing brain

4 Oct 2023

Dr María Rodríguez Aburto. Image: David Jones

Dr María Rodríguez Aburto discusses her research into how gut microbiomes can impact a developing brain and the potential links to neurodevelopmental disorders.

The microbiome of our gut plays a very important role in our health, but that role may come into effect sooner than we realise.

Dr María Rodríguez Aburto is a biologist and a neuroscientist, currently focused on how gut microbes shape the developing brain. She is currently an investigator with APC Microbiome Ireland and is working on multiple projects in this field.

Speaking with, Aburto said her fascination with the natural world stems back to her childhood where she would spend hours “observing wildlife in gardens, caring for adopted birds and dogs, and finding inspiration in the work of pioneers like Konrad Lorenz and Jane Goodall”.

“Today, I am grateful to have assembled a remarkable team of individuals who share my passion,” Aburto said. “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe how far this journey has taken me.”

The gut and the brain

Aburto’s focus on the connection between gut microbes and the brain began while doing a postdoc in neurovascular communication in Germany. She delved deeper into this intriguing field and made contact with Prof John Cryan, before joining his group at APC in 2020.

‘It’s worth considering that microbes have been our companions for far longer than our understanding of them’

Her research is primarily focused on learning how microbes shape different facets of brain development, during the prenatal and early postnatal stages of a person’s life.

“While genetic factors are largely beyond our control, environmental factors can be subject to manipulation, allowing for potential modulation of their interaction with genetic elements,” Aburto said. “Among these environmental factors, one of particular interest is the gut microbiota – a complex ecosystem of microorganisms that inhabit our digestive tract.

“These microorganisms possess an extensive array of genes that complement our own, and they have co-existed with us throughout our relatively short evolutionary history.”

Aburto said previous research has found connections between gut microbes and certain aspects such as social behaviour, stress responses and anxiety, among others.

“Our aim is to delve into the neurodevelopmental underpinnings of these variations, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or schizophrenia,” Aburto said. “Interestingly, all of these conditions have been linked to differences in gut microbiota composition.”

Her research is looking at interventions in animal models that disrupt the “perinatal microbiota”, to examine their impact on the developing brain. One of these interventions is the use of antibiotics during pregnancy, as they can disrupt the microbiota of the mother.

“It’s important to note that the embryo itself does not have its own microbiota but is influenced by the gut microbes of the gestating mother,” Aburto said.

The second intervention her team is investigating is birth by Caesarean section. Aburto said this procedure can disrupt the “seeding” process – which is essentially when microbes from the mother transfer to the baby during childbirth, to help the development of the child’s own microbiome.

“While these interventions are crucial and life-saving when medically necessary, it’s vital that we understand their potential effects on the neonate wellbeing,” Aburto said. “The encouraging news is that we have the capability to intervene once again to ‘reconstruct’ the seeding of the microbiota.”

Simultaneous projects

Aburto has received grants to support her projects, recently receiving a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Pathway Award and a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. She said these projects are “highly complementary” of each other.

The ERC-funded project is looking into the “fundamental neurodevelopmental aspects” of how the gut microbiota influences brain development. The SFI-backed project, meanwhile, is investigating how microbial signals impact brain development through the vascular system and brain barriers.

“Often underestimated in the field of neuroscience, blood vessels have emerged as more than mere nutrient and oxygen carriers; they play an active role in brain neurodevelopment, as supported by previous research from both my team and others,” Aburto said. “What’s also exciting is that by concurrently pursuing these projects, we’ve generated a unique synergy that enables us to explore the intersection between vascular and neural development.

“This is allowing us to investigate dimensions that would have remained uncharted if we had undertaken only one of these projects in isolation.”

Future research

Aburto said there is some “scepticism” when it comes to the role the gut plays in the physiology of its host. She noted that the field has seen a “surge in hype” recently, though she added that social media is “inundated with information lacking scientific rigor”.

“It’s worth considering that microbes have been our companions for far longer than our understanding of them,” Aburto said. They have been an integral part of our evolutionary journey, to the extent that they are now an intrinsic part of us.

“Viewing it from this perspective, it becomes less surprising that they play a role in a multitude of processes, including brain development and function.”

Aburto said the field is largely focused on investigating how negative impacts to the microbiome can affect the brain, but she is “equally interested” in seeing what outcomes arise from positively manipulating the microbiome.

“Our contemporary westernised lifestyle, for instance, has induced alterations in our gut microbial communities, and researchers are working on unravelling the repercussions of these changes,” Aburto said. “My curiosity for future research directions extends to exploring whether and how these shifts in microbiota could influence neurodevelopment.

“These are undoubtedly exciting times for our field, marked by the contributions of immensely talented researchers who are approaching questions about microbiota-brain connections from diverse angles and perspectives.

“Moreover, as we advance our research, we also stand as eager spectators witnessing where science takes us next.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic