Gut bacteria linked to improved cognitive development in male infants

From digestion-related processes and immunity to the production of essential vitamins, gut bacteria carry out a wide range of critical functions in the body. Previous studies reveal the healing nature of these microbes when it comes to mental disorders. In addition to this, gut microbes may help improve comprehension and early speech development in babies.

In a recent study, Alberta University researchers tracked 405 newborns from the CHILD Cohort Study (CHILD). They found that boys who have a higher concentration of the bacterium Bacteroidetes at the age of one develop more advanced cognitive and language abilities by the age of two. This is compared to those with low concentrations of the bacterial species. Male children, however, are the only ones to be affected, according to the study’s findings.

“It’s well known that female children score higher (at early ages), especially in cognition and language,” says Anita Kozyrskyj, a professor of pediatrics at the University and principal investigator of the SyMBIOTA (Synergy in Microbiota) lab. “But when it comes to gut microbial composition, it was the male infants where we saw this obvious connection between the Bacteroidetes and the improved scores.”

“The differences between male and female gut microbiota are very subtle, but we do know from CHILD Cohort Study data that girls at early ages are more likely to have more of these Bacteroidetes. So perhaps most girls have a sufficient number of Bacteroidetes and that’s why they have improved scores over boys,” adds Kozyrskyj.

Aside from Bacteroidetes, the team found two other distinct kinds of bacteria that predominated in newborn feces. Proteobacteria and Firmicutes were almost identical in concentration. This prompted the team to assess the newborns on a range of neurodevelopmental stages to determine the effect of each bacterial type. Interestingly, only the male newborns with Bacteroidetes-dominant bacteria in the gut exhibited indicators of improved neurodevelopment among the three groups studied.

Bacteroidetes is unique in that it can synthesize the neuronal structure-building chemicals known as sphingolipids, explained Kozyrskyj. “It makes sense that if you have more of these microbes and they produce more sphingolipids, then you should see some improvement in terms of the formation of neuron connections in our brain and improved scores in cognition and language,” she said.

Caesarean delivery is one condition that might drastically reduce Bacteroidetes concentrations. Nursing, high-fiber meals, having pets, and exposure to nature all have a beneficial effect on the makeup of an infant’s intestinal flora.

Individuals with a smaller number of Bacteroidetes are not necessarily more likely to fall behind developmentally speaking, but experts say the study provides great promise as a technique to possibly detect children in danger of future neurodevelopmental issues.

The babies who took part in CHILD will continue to be monitored to see if the results may be used to predict autism or ADD/ADHD in the future. Additionally, the investigators are exploring numerous additional variables that could have an effect on baby neurodevelopment, such as stress and Clostridium difficile infection of the gut.

“Over the first one to two years of life, your brain is very malleable,” says Kozyrskyj. “Now we’re seeing a connection between its malleability and gut microbiota, and I think that is very important.” 

This study is published in Gut Microbes.

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