Since the early 2000s, researchers have begun to zero in on one of the most significant mind body linkages in humans, the connection between the microbiome of our digestive systems and our brains—sometimes called the “brain gut connection.” The implications coming out of this research, on everything from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s to mental illness, are shifting the way we think about the profound impact of the human microbiome and human health.

In 2015, Brain Canada became a key funding partner on CIFAR’s Humans and the Microbiome (HMB) project, a progressive, multi-disciplinary effort that brings together more than 30 researchers from across North America to uncover the mysteries of the human microbiota and the role it plays in human health, evolution, and development. The project is co-led by Dr. B. Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Melissa Melby, an anthropologist at the University of Delaware, who recently took over for Dr. Janet Rossant of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The novel insights gained by HMB researchers are already making a major impression on public health.

In early 2021, HMB researchers collaborated on a paper published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), titled “The hygiene hypothesis, the COVID pandemic, and consequences for the human microbiome.” The paper received widespread media attention in both Canada and the USA.

“The PNAS paper is about some of the unintended consequences of not only intense sanitization and disinfecting due to COVID, but other behavioral changes related to the pandemic, such as food access, social isolation, and more,” says Dr. Melby. “I think that paper was able to capture what can happen when you get microbiologists and social scientists talking to each other in meaningful ways.”

The team recently identified their research themes for the next five years of the HMB, in which they will focus on the “bookends of life,” from birth to end-of-life diseases and care; the microbiome and the community; and the impact of the environment on the microbiome.

Dr. Melby hopes the HMB’s work can continue to give strong scientific underpinning for many public health issues, from breastfeeding, to elder care, to systemic and environmental concerns, all of which can impact the microbiome, and in turn, human health.

“Everything from antibiotic resistance to climate change has an impact on the microbiome. We’re trying to bring all these ideas together,” says Dr. Melby.

“The HMB brings together people who are not only committed to doing great science, but to communicating with people outside of their discipline,” she says. “I think the public wants more of us, as academics and scientists, to do that kind of innovative, integrative, interdisciplinary work. And I think the world demands it.”