May 25, 2018

Gut-brain connection critical link to understanding brain development, social behaviour

Irish microbiome researcher John Cryan to speak at Owerko Centre Conference June 7
John Cryan's keynote address at The Owerko Centre Conference will explore the connection between the body's microbiome and brain development.

John Cryan's keynote will explore the connection between the body's microbiome and brain development

100 trillion is a large number. A very large number. But you may be surprised to know that 100 trillion is the approximate number of bacteria and other microbes that are contained within our bodies at this very moment. This collection of bacteria and microbes are collectively known as our microbiome.

Most people know that our microbiome is the body’s food digestion engine. We eat, they break down our food. Most people also know that they are useful for helping to bolster our immune systems and preventing infections from taking hold. But what most people don’t know is that the body’s microbiome can also play a profound role in our behaviour and emotional regulation.

This idea of the microbiome being a key regulator of behaviour and emotion will be at the heart of the keynote address that John Cryan, PhD, will be giving as part of the 2018 Owerko Centre Conference on June 7. Cryan’s keynote lecture at the conference, A Gut Feeling About the Brain — Microbiome as a Key Regulator of Neurodevelopment and Behaviour, will explore the idea that the microbes within our bodies have a bidirectional relationship with brain development and social behaviour.

Made possible through the generous support of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, The Owerko Centre is a multidisciplinary research centre within the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) that has a broad translational focus on neurodevelopment and child mental health. Researchers from The Owerko Centre come from departments and faculties from across the University of Calgary, including the Cumming School of Medicine, psychology, nursing, social work, education and are also joined with clinical scientists from Alberta Health Services. The Owerko Centre Conference is an annual event that profiles neurodevelopment and child mental health research from faculties and departments from across UCalgary, as well as inviting national and international experts to participate as speakers and guests.

Scientific research from around the world over the past 10 years or so has shown that in model animal trials, predominantly using mice, there are strong correlations between bacteria activity in the microbiome and certain brain and body responses like the inducement of anxiety and mood disorders, and various gastrointestinal disorders like leaky intestines and others.

The linkage between gastrointestinal symptoms and brain development are particularly interesting to consider from a neurodevelopmental disorder perspective because research has shown that between 40 to 90 per cent of children with autism also suffer from gastrointestinal disorders. These linkages, therefore, beg the question of whether changes to the composition of our microbiome could lead to changes in brain development, particularly of children?

John Cryan, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience at University College Cork, Ireland, will speak at the upcoming Owerko Centre Conference.

John Cryan, PhD, will speak at the upcoming Owerko Centre Conference.

John Cryan

John Cryan answers a definitive “yes,” and highlights the connection is possibly most profound when the brain is developing in early life. Cryan expands on this idea, saying, “It is still a little bit controversial but for the most part it is thought that we are sterile when we are in utero, and as we are being born, as we emerge through the birth canal from our mums, we get this handover bacteria. It is like a gulp at birth. Those bacteria are really important for starting the whole process.”

Susan Graham, PhD, director of The Owerko Centre, believes the gut-brain connection is a critical link for understanding how neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and others manifest themselves. 

Graham believes that Cryan’s participation at the 2018 Owerko Centre Conference is a great example of how research in neurodevelopment and child mental health is multi-disciplinary, drawing on insights from neuroscience, psychology, medicine, nutrition science, genetics, education and others.

“It’s important to understand that research like John’s has implications for many aspects of development and we are fortunate here at University of Calgary and the Owerko Centre at ACHRI to be surrounded by world-class research and researchers which helps attract someone like Dr. Cryan to speak at our conference” says Graham.

Cryan’s keynote address at the Owerko Centre conference provides the opportunity for connections between the work that Cryan leads in Europe as professor and chair of the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience at University College Cork, Ireland and as president of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society, with leading microbiome researchers at the University of Calgary.

Cryan’s visit to the University of Calgary is also timely in terms of the recent opening of the International Microbiome Centre (IMC) in the fall of 2017. The IMC is a unique world-class centre designed to mobilize groundbreaking research into the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. Cryan has a number of meetings organized with faculty and researchers from across campus while he is in Calgary to discuss further microbiome-related research collaborations and opportunities.

John Cryan will be speaking at the 2018 Owerko Centre Conference on June 7 at the Foothills Campus in Theatre 4. The event is free to attend, and coffee, lunch and refreshments will be served.

Please go to the Owerko Centre website for more details and to register for the conference.