Gut bacteria and genetics combined to help diagnose brain diseases

Southampton researchers are examining how bacteria in our guts could be used to help spot brain diseases.

The new study at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility (CRF) will improve understanding of the genetics of aging and degenerative brain diseases like dementia.

The clinical trial is being delivered with University of Southampton spinout company TopMD.

Scientists plan to use the results to develop a world-first combined test of gut bacteria and genes to diagnose brain diseases.

Immune response and brain diseases

Different bacteria in the gut have been linked with long life and healthy ageing.

Some gut bacteria can activate the body’s immune system though, which can cause harm if not kept in check.

Research has shown that this immune response is linked with developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease later in life.

This new project, known as BIO-AGE, aims to identify genes in older people and gut bacteria that are associated with healthy ageing and with different brain diseases.

The study is part of a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Innovate UK award.

Diagnostic biological markers

The research will tap into TopMD’s leading knowledge of molecular mechanisms underlying disease.

The BIO-AGE study will take blood, skin and saliva samples from older people with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), as well as others without these diseases.

Researchers will then analyse gut bacteria genes and blood gene expression signatures. These gene patterns can be used as biomarkers in the diagnosis of disease, targeting of treatment and monitoring of recovery.

Combining these insights will help scientists devise a test that improve diagnosis of brain diseases.

Insight from the ‘second brain’

The CRF study is being led by Professor Christopher Kipps, Consultant Neurologist at University Hospital Southampton and Professor of Clinical Neurology and Dementia at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with colleagues at Southern Health Foundation Trust (Dr Jay Amin) and TopMD.

Prof Kipps said: “The connection between the gut and the nervous system has not always been recognised, but there are over 100 million nerve cells in the gut and it has sometimes been called the ‘second brain’.

“It is often said that ‘we are what we eat’ and for the brain it’s probably true. There is more and more evidence that the gut plays a major role in influencing brain function and various forms of dementia.

“This work is trying to understand and better predict future dementia from patterns of gene expression (biomarkers) that are stimulated by different organisms that live in the gut. It could lead to better tests to identify people at risk of dementia and stimulate further work on prevention of the condition.”

Erika Parkinson, Director of R&D at TopMD, said: “We are very excited to be embarking on this UKRI-funded study alongside Professor Chris Kipps, Dr Jay Amin and their teams to advance our understanding of the relationship between the gut microbiome and dementia and identify genetic biomarkers of healthy aging. We hope that this collaboration will lead to the development of new diagnostics and treatments for dementia.”