Trying to learn more about autism by studying the immune system in the gut doesn’t seems like an obvious approach. Did you expect your research to take you in this direction?
It was so surprising because my background is in brain science and electrophysiology,understanding different types of neurons in the central nervous system.
So I came at this from a neuroscience perspective, looking to see what is changing in the gut nervous system. But what’s been amazing is when we alter only the nervous system, we then see changes in other systems, like the immune system.
It’s super exciting because it provides us a way to tweak the immune system, and researchers are very interested in exploring how our immune system relates to the severity of autism symptoms and outcomes. So we’ve got a really great tool there.
I get amazed all the time by our research. What holds us up – but is really exciting – is that every time we look at something and think we’ll just measure something basic, we find something new.
So even something as simple as measuring the length of the gut - lo and behold, this mutation in the nervous system might be changing that as well. This work, it’s full of surprises.
What do we still need to learn about gut microbes and their role in health and disease?
Simple answer - we need to know which ones are present, and how they change in response to different stimuli. We also need to know in what circumstances different types are detrimental or advantageous to the host.
One of the things that was completely surprising to me in this research was the role of the microbiota – that is, the trillions of bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal tract.
We’ve learned that the microbiota can differ even when you remove all the environmental differences. The fact our mice show differences in microbes even when they’re housed together, eat the same food; that just blew me out of the water.
I never expected it to be microbes, I thought that only the nervous system would be involved. We don’t quite understand the pathways, but we now know microbes play a far more important role than we ever believed. That link, it’s really astounding.
As you’ve gone down these pioneering paths to examine the gut-brain connection, what has it been like for you sharing this new knowledge with families and the community?
I’ve had a lot of support from families. Starting out in a new area like this, when the literature and the field is not that well established, it’s risky.
But going back and speaking to families, and also from my personal experience as a mother of a child with severe autism, that gave me more confidence that this really is an issue and we need to work on it and try to understand it.
I have the tools to do that as a neuroscientist, since that was my training before my children were born, so it’s really quite fortuitous.
I’m transferring what I know of the brain to this emerging field so all of that expertise has now essentially been harnessed in my focus now, the gut-brain axis.