Microbes may hold the key to autism treatment

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JoseLuis Baylon

When the microbe was first discovered in 1674 by Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Royal Society in London ridiculed the existence of these small organisms. To that point microorganisms were mostly unknown.

Microbiology moved into the 21st century and now scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta discovered microbes are reigning in the clouds. We have known that microbes exist at high altitudes, no one had been able to find out if microbes can exist over the ocean.

Hitching a lift with NASA, the research team attached sample collectors to the outside of a DC-8 platform. It sampled air masses through low and high altitudes before, during and after hurricanes Earl and Karl.

Researchers concluded that bacterial microbes have the capability to exist in the atmosphere and create an ecosystem in the sky. Data revealed that an average cubic meter of air possessed 5,100 bacterial cells. About 60 percent of the microbes were still alive upon collection. Researchers took a look at the genes of the cells and found 314 different families of microbes, 17 sharing the ability to digest oxalic acid, an eco-rich compound in the atmosphere.

Microbes in the atmosphere strengthen the hypothesis that they could act as cloud condensation nuclei and raindrops. This biogeographic diversity is poorly understood and its significance remains unknown.

Such is life with microbes.

Until humans discover them, microbes are hidden in plain sight. Sometimes finding them takes a gut feeling. Hidden in the gastrointestinal system (GI) is a neural connection called the vagal afferent pathway. Its job is to interpret information about ingested nutrients and monitor bacteria.

When veterinary scientists in South Korea sought to identify what kind of microflora develops in the GI of beagles with experimentally induced obesity, they kept their eyes on serotonin levels. Dog serotonin levels dropped dramatically while a gram-negative bacteria began to dominate 75 percent of the GI microflora. Obesity occurs when serotonin drops out of sight and creates an appetite in its absence. If a disruption occurs within the GI, such as a change in the microbial community, the message that gets sent to the brain will have affect on psychology. For humans, serotonin is the essential neurotransmitter for creating the emotional feeling of happiness. About 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal system.

Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, a researcher for Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, realized that GI problems are consistent with subjects across all levels of autism spectrum disorder. Her team analyzed the DNA of microbes found in the GI of 20 autistic children and 20 symptom-free children. They discovered that autistic children have a significant community of bacterias missing from their GI microflora, including Prevotella, Coprococcus and Veillonellaceae. Absence of these carbohydrate-degrading microbes influence the overall structure of information that the stomach reports to the brain. Upon receiving update that a particular set of microorganisms are missing, the brain initiates the behaviors and presence of autistic symptoms. This led researchers at the University of Colorado to study whether autism in mice can be reversed by introducing healthy bacteria back into the GI.

By confirming that autistic mice, like humans, have a lower gut microbe count, autistic-born mice were fed a probiotic, a microbe that stimulates growth of other microbes. To the researcher’s surprise, the microflora diversified and lessened the presence of autism-like symptoms. It seems neurology and the microbe work together.

It very well may be that to be human is to be part microbe.

I am what I eat and I think, therefore I am, but our tiny friends help us along.

 

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