UCC’s Professor Ted Dinan, who has been spearheading research into the link between bacteria in the stomach and mental health, believes the probiotic could be used to ease anxiety and depression.
“I do think that we may very well, in the not-too-distant future, have a situation where mild forms of anxiety and depression could be treated with a probiotic like this,” he said.
Professor Dinan, a consultant psychiatrist at Cork University Hospital, said the study on young Irish males is one of the first of its kind on humans.
“It is one of the first studies to show that a probiotic could reduce anxiety levels. We know that there is a very close link between the brain and the gut.
“We’re all familiar with having butterflies in your stomach, when you’re anxious, so the reverse is true, as well, with signals going from the gut to the brain.
“There is about a kilogramme of bacteria in the human gut, which produces chemicals that our brain and other organs in our body need,” he said.
“What the study was essentially doing was looking at one particular bifidobacterium, or probiotic, which was isolated in Cork to see if injecting that would, in any way, influence anxiety levels and would impact on things like memory. And it did,” Prof Dinan said.
The research, published by UCC, along with the Irish company, Alimentary Health, found that a specific strain of bacteria — named Bifidobacterium longum — may lessen and enhance brain performance in healthy volunteers.
Professor Dinan said the healthy young males in the study spent one month on a placebo and one month on the bacteria treatment.
“They didn’t know if they were taking the probiotic or the placebo, but when they were taking the probiotic they rated themselves as feeling less stress.”
The study, just published in the journal, Translational Psychiatry, also found that when the males said they were feeling less stress, they also measured for lower levels of the stress or ‘fight or flight’ hormone, cortisol.
“The cortisol was a very dramatic effect,” said Professor Dinan.
“We also did EEG studies, where we measure the electrical activity in the brain and we found that when people were taking this probiotic that the electrical activity in the brain did alter.” Professor Dinan, the principal investigator at the APC Microbiome Institute, at University College Cork, said if it does go on the market it will be in a supplement-style capsule.
“I think it would be pretty much like a vitamin in a capsule. Certainly, our initial study would suggest that, for dealing with stress in everyday life, this probiotic might very well be very effective.
“We had no side-effects reported. Bifidobacterium are generally regarded as extremely safe bacteria and we saw no side-effects.”
“From a safety perspective, it would be a dramatic improvement in the ability to treat milder forms of anxiety and milder forms of depression.” The researchers carried out the study on humans after seeing how the probiotic had a relaxing effect on animals tested in their lab in Cork.
“The animals were healthy and we weren’t doing anything in anyway unpleasant to the animals, but they seemed more relaxed when given this particularly probiotic, as opposed to any other probiotic.
“That’s really where we came up with the idea that it was worth doing a study on humans.”