Probiotics not just for the gut? Study shows they could enhance cognition too

Researchers in the medical community continue to study the integral connection between the gut microbiome and the brain. Recent research reveals the impact of a healthy gut microbiome and the effects of probiotic supplementation, particularly in aging adults. Scientists anticipate that further studies around the brain-gut axis will help prevent and treat certain cognitive dysfunctions and mental degeneration in the future.   

The microbiome consists of a collection of microbes specific to an individual, and these microorganisms work as internal and external protective mechanisms. Many of these microbes work to benefit digestion and the uptake of dietary nutrients, and many others directly work to build the immune system. When the right combination appears, it also proves vital to proper cognitive function over a lifespan.

Animal Model Study

Gut health, intestines, digestive system
Probiotics may do more than just improve gut health. Researchers say they could also improve cognition, especially in older adults. (© sdecoret – stock.adobe.com)

There have been a plethora of recent studies around gut health and its contribution to mental health. In a study on animal models, scientists examine how modifications to microbes in the gut of mice alter different outputs. Researchers find that changes to the gut microorganisms result in both cognitive and behavioral shifts, including components necessary for memory, reasoning, and learning.   

Probiotic Effects on Populations Based on Age

Another study by researchers at the University of Reading examined human subjects to find if probiotic supplements containing live microbe strains would benefit mental cognition. Researchers analyzed the connection between one live probiotic strain and one or more mental performance measures in participants, including memory, attention, and acute cognitive responses. The university discovered 30 eligible ongoing studies that meet research criteria and grouped subjects into age categories. 

In infants, researchers found no significant impact on cognitive function or outcomes. However, the study’s limitations in this subcategory of subjects centered around the lack of information on infant main nutrient supply, due to the fact that breast milk contains prebiotics and probiotics and formula does not.

In young and middle-aged adults, there was a mixture of outcomes. In some study participants with diseases ranging from fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue to HIV and MDD, there was a slight improvement in memory and decision making. However, studies on healthy adults showed a range of results. Five research studies on this subcategory showed improvement with supplementation of probiotics and two studies showed no significant differences.

In older adults, two studies that tested information processing, memory, and a range of other cognitive functions showed improvements between a group that had taken a probiotic supplement and those that were given a placebo. However, a secondary study showed no significant impact on cognitive function due to probiotic supplementation.

While this study reveals various conclusions about the impact of probiotics and cognitive function, medical professionals recognize the positive effect that gut health has on individuals throughout their lifespan, particularly on aging populations in which mental cognition begins to take a dip.

“There is evidence, particularly in adults, of a relationship between gut health and the use of probiotics and cognitive functions.[…] I’m happy to see that there’s more and more objective evidence and I’m hopeful that this kind of information becomes more widespread and used by practitioners who are treating individuals across the lifespan,” explains Dr. Vernon Williams in a statement. Dr. Williams is the director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Cedars-Sinani Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

Future Research Benefits

While more studies centering around the interconnection of the gut and brain need to occur to truly see the entire picture of this intricate connection, a promising sign is that consistent research is happening in this scientific arena. 

Though these particular studies do not give clear indications that supplemental probiotics benefit overall health and cognition, the continuation of research in this area may help grow awareness about additional measures that can contribute to mental function and whole-body health. Additionally, these studies may also aid in a greater understanding of nutritional components that should comprise an individual’s unique and specific diet to benefit their cognitive function and overall well-being.   
These studies are published in Gastroenterology and ScienceDirect


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