Brains and bacteria: NDSU student takes a closer look

Bacteria get a bad rep, according to North Dakota State University grad student Manpreet “Matt” Bains. People often think of bacteria as negative or gross. In reality, Bains’ study of bacteria and brain proteins show that not only are bacteria an necessary part of human health, but also that we may be more intrinsically connected to our bacteria than we thought.

Bains, a student in the molecular pathogenesis Ph.D program, won NDSU’s three minute thesis competition in February, in which he whittled down years of research and a 300 page thesis into a three minute pitch. His talk was titled,¬† “Modulatory effects of neural proteins on your microbiome.”

“Most people probably aren’t too familiar with what the microbiome is and the role it plays within our body,” Bains said in his pitch. “The microbiome is the community of bacteria that live on and inside us.”

Something many people don’t realize, Bains said, is that an individuals’ microbiome is nearly equal to the amount of cells that make up a human body.

“Your body is made up of around a trillion cells, and there’s around 1.3 trillion bacteria on you and inside you,” he said. “So, there’s just as many bacteria as there are human cells. If you look at cell to cell number, there is just as many bacteria as there are you.”

To get a mental image, Bains said, imagine taking all the bacteria outside of your body and forming it in front of you. You’d get basically a clone of yourself.

This is bacteria that your body needs to break down certain foods and prevent infections from other, unwelcome pathogenic bacteria.

NDSU

Bains and his advisor, Dr. Glenn Dorsam, weren’t initially intent on studying microbiomes. Their research began with brain proteins, he said — the means by which the neurons in your brain communicate with each other. In particular they studied a protein that has a direct affect on the intestines.

As they began to look closer at bacteria and the microbiomes, they found that there might be a connection between how our brains communicate, and the bacteria in our body.

“My work set out to find what effect the loss of a neural protein would have on the microbiome,” he said. “We used mice that had this protein silenced and compared them to normal mice. What we discovered was something absolutely amazing. We found that there was a drastic change in the microbial composition of these mice. This shows us that the state of our nervous system can have an impact on the microbial community that surrounds us.”

The implications of this are still being discovered, Bains said. For instance, certain bacteria can alter how much sugar you want to eat. Altering bacteria could be used as a way to combat obesity and diabetes, Bains said.

“If we see that mice that are lacking this protein are getting skinnier, we can disrupt that function in people and help people lose weight,” Bains said.

Bains is continuing his research at North Dakota State University for one more year. His studies in molecular pathogenesis, including his findings on the connection between the brain and bacteria, will be published. As to how this could impact the world we live in, our medicine, our products, etc., time will only tell.

He did mention that the next time you use anti-bacterial soap or sanitizer, remember that often your killing off good bacteria. In other words, our bacteria are friends, not foes.

Listen to Matt talking about his 3MT win on KFGO!

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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