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An interdisciplinary approach to understanding the microbiome

Janet Rossant, Co-Director of CIFAR’s Humans and the Microbiome program.

The project

Brain Canada is a partner on the CIFAR research program called Humans and the Microbiome. The program aims to look into the role the microbiome plays in human development and behaviour, as well as how it is affecting our evolution and society. The program consists of 19 Fellows and Advisors, spanning a variety of disciplines and geographic areas. Expertise in the program to date is provided in the areas of microbiology, developmental and stem cell biology, metabolism and human physiology, evolutionary biology, history and social science, and anthropology. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the program will shed new light on broad issues of human health, such as healthy aging, human development and the effects of diet and drug treatments.

Research has shown that bidirectional signalling exists between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain, called the gut-brain “axis” or “connection”. The microbiome plays an integral part in the gut-brain connection and is implicated in a range of issues related to brain dysfunction from neurodevelopmental disorders to neurodegeneration, depression, ADHD, and even to jet lag and fetal development.

Several Fellows from the Humans and the Microbiome program are pursuing research related to this gut-brain connection, which has resulted in collaborations both between researchers within the program and across different CIFAR programs.

A CIFAR-funded collaboration is ongoing between CIFAR Fellows Sven Petersson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and Janet Rossant of the Hospital for Sick Children. They are interested in untangling how the prenatal microbiome of the mother affects brain development in the fetus. Previous work suggests that microbial metabolites could penetrate the placenta and affect the timing and direction of brain development. Thanks to the collaboration, Katherine Martine, a PhD student of Pettersson’s, will spend six months in the lab of the University of Calgary’s Guang Yang working on the project.

The CIFAR program has also organized several events to facilitate collaboration among researchers and with the public. Co-Director Brett Finlay presented the CIFAR-Royal Institution Public Lecture at the Royal Institution for Science in London, and the program hosted a roundtable discussion in conjunction with the talk. Program members also met with federal policy makers and health officials in Ottawa to discuss the role of the microbiome in public health.