Cork professor looking to the gut for alternatives to antidepressants

5 Jul 2021

Prof Ted Dinan. Image: Clare Keogh

When it comes to discovering new therapeutic interventions for stress-related disorders, Prof Ted Dinan is listening to his gut instinct.

Considered one of the world’s top experts on gut microbiota, Prof Ted Dinan is medical director of Cork-based Atlantia Clinical Trials.

He is also a principal investigator at APC Microbiome Ireland, a research institute dedicated to microbiome science based at University College Cork.

Dinan has worked in research laboratories on both sides of the Atlantic and his primary interest is the role of gut microbiota in stress-related disorders. He has published more than 500 papers and numerous books on pharmacology and neurobiology and was awarded the Melvin Ramsay Prize for research into the biology of stress.

‘Within a few years, we will see therapeutic interventions for stress-related psychiatric disorders which target gut microbes’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always been interested in human biology and, after training as a doctor, I completed a PhD in pharmacology. I was a second-year student in Christian Brothers College, Cork, and I distinctly remember a teacher called Mr McCarthy telling us about the human body. I decided there and then to pursue a career in medicine. There were no doctors in my family, so I was not following in any footsteps.

What research are you currently working on?

My current research focuses on the brain-gut-microbe axis. This addresses the communication between the brain and gut and how it can be influenced by the gastrointestinal microbiota. It is an area of significance where important links between diet, microbes and mood/cognition are established.

I developed the now widely accepted concept of psychobiotics, bacteria that, when ingested in adequate amounts, have a positive mental health benefit.

Over the course of my career, I have published extensively in the fields of neuroendocrinology, single-cell electrophysiology and platelet pharmacology.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Gut microbes in the past were largely viewed as irrelevant in terms of brain function. With my colleague Prof John Cryan, we have demonstrated that such bacteria play a fundamental role in our response to stress. We have shown that the brain-gut axis malfunctions in disorders such as depression.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Within a few years, we will see therapeutic interventions for stress-related psychiatric disorders which target gut microbes.

In my role as medical director of Atlantia, we have tested multiple probiotics. We recently demonstrated that a probiotic could not only decrease glucose in pre-diabetic subjects but also reduced the stress hormone cortisol. I believe this to be an important finding and hopefully the probiotic will be commercialised.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a microbiome researcher?

The main problem when I commenced research in Ireland was funding. Fortunately, this is no longer a major issue.

Until recently, medical doctors needed to engage in research if they wished to obtain a consultant post in a good hospital. This is no longer the case, which in my opinion, is highly regrettable.

Without research, it is impossible to maintain high clinical standards. As a result, I have fears for the future of clinical medicine in Ireland.

Are there any common misconceptions about microbiome research?

There is a misconception that all products sold as probiotics are of health benefit. This is not the case.

Many products marketed have no data to support efficacy. We established Atlantia to enable quality studies to take place.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see high-calibre studies of probiotics in the field of depression. We need alternatives to antidepressants for milder forms of depression and anxiety.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.