New research by a University College Cork professor has discovered a possible link between the microbes in our gut and social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Social anxiety disorder is a long-term and excessive fear of social situations.
It usually begins in adolescence and while for some people it gets better as they age, many others require treatment.
The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), builds on recent findings that SAD patients have different microbiomes than healthy individuals.
The gut microbiota is the system of microorganisms in a person’s gastrointestinal tract.
The latest research involved transplanting the microbiota from six patients with SAD into mice and resulting in increased sensitivity to fear states during social interaction in the mice, as well as changes in immune and brain functions.
Research APC and UCC Vice President of Research and Innovation Professor John F. Cryan.
APC Microbiome Ireland is based at UCC and Teagasc and is a world-leading research center focused on understanding the gastrointestinal bacterial community and harnessing the power of the microbiota for the health and well-being of people and the planet.
Commenting on the research, he said: SAD is a growing problem for the human population, so it is important to discover new treatments to tackle this condition.
Discovering a link between the microbiota and the SAD condition is an important breakthrough in that the microbiota potentially represents a therapeutic target.
SAD is one of the most disabling anxiety disorders and new research suggests that the gut microbiota may be a target for new treatment strategies to be developed.
Although the mice that received the SAD microbiota had normal behavior in a series of tests designed to assess depression and anxiety-like behaviors, they had increased sensitivity to social phobia.
This work may demonstrate an interstate basis for social fear responses (hormonal communication between microorganisms and their hosts has been termed interstate signaling).
The team took stool samples from six healthy people and six people with SAD, and after DNA analysis confirmed that the gut microbes were significantly different, transferred them into 72 mice.
The rats were then presented with a series of tests to investigate their anxiety and social fear.
To investigate social fear, rats were given small electric shocks when they approached a new rat.
The research team then observed how the animals behaved around the new mice when the electric shocks were not given.
While mice with gut microbes from healthy people regained their social interaction time with new mice over the following days, mice with gut microbes from people with SAD remained fearful of approaching other mice.
Mice that received SAD microbiota also had changes in brain oxytocin levels and central and peripheral immunity.
Oxytocin intensifies the experience of both positive and negative social interactions and regulates social behavior.
The paper’s authors say the findings suggest that the microbiotagutbrain axis is an ideal target for identifying novel therapeutics to improve symptoms in SAD.
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