There has been a great deal of recent interest in the connection between nervous system function and the complex bacteria that are found in the gastrointestinal system, known as the gut microbiome. Some scientists believe that differences in the type of bacteria found in the gut may underlie neurological disease. In fact, it has been suggested by some that gut bacteria may interact with the immune system, in turn affecting autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS).
In MS, the body’s own immune system launches an attack against myelin. Myelin covers nerve fibers and insulates them, allowing fast and efficient communication in the nervous system. When the myelin is damaged by immune system cells, the symptoms of MS result, including loss of movement, pain, problems with sensation and vision loss. But what does this have to do with the stomach?
Plenty, according to a recent opinion paper titled “The Gut Microbiome in Multiple Sclerosis,” published in the April 7th issue of Current Options in Neurology. Daniel Mielcarz, PhD and Lloyd Kasper, MD, note that, “The gut microbiome has been shown to have profound effects on the development and maintenance of immune system in both animal models and in humans.” They further speculate that bacteria in the gut could influence immune responses, including the self-attacking responses of immune cells. In their article, the researchers note that there are several risk factors for MS that can cause changes in gut bacteria, which in turn might cause an immune response related to MS. Such changes include insufficient dietary vitamin D, smoking, and alcohol use. Fortunately, according to the authors, “Preliminary clinical trials aimed at modulating the gut microbiota in MS patients are underway and may prove to be a promising lower risk treatment option in the future.”
Hopefully, the new interest focusing on the gastrointestinal bacteria found in people with MS will provide more options and answers. New research initiatives, such as the National Institutes of Health’s Microbiome Project, may begin to provide more insight into whether these gastrointestinal bacteria indeed provide the answers to solve many diseases, or if the interest in gastrointestinal flora is simply a passing scientific fad.