Pregnant women may pass on the effects of stress to their fetus by way of bacterial changes in their vagina, suggests a study in mice. It may affect how well their baby’s brain is equipped to deal with stress in adulthood.
The bacteria in our body outnumber our own cells by about 10 to 1, with most of them found in our gut. Over the last few years, it has become clear that the bacterial ecosystem in our body – our microbiome – is essential for developing and maintaining a healthy immune system.
Our gut bugs also help to prevent germs from invading our bodies, and help to absorb nutrients from food.
A baby gets its first major dose of bacteria in life as it passes through its mother’s birth canal. En route, the baby ingests the mother’s vaginal microbes, which begin to colonise the newborn’s gut.
Chris Howerton, then at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and his colleagues wanted to know if this initial population of bacteria is important in shaping a baby’s neurological development, and whether that population is influenced by stress during pregnancy.
The first step was to figure out what features of the mother’s vaginal microbiome might be altered by stress, and then see if any of those changes were transmitted to the offspring’s gut.
To do this, the team exposed 10 pregnant mice to a different psychologically stressful experience, such as exposing them to fox odour, keeping their cages lit at night, or temporarily restraining them every day for what would be the equivalent of the first trimester of their pregnancy. Another 10 pregnant mice were housed normally during the same time.
The team took samples of their vaginal bacteria throughout the pregnancy and again just after the mice had given birth. These samples were genetically sequenced to see what types of bacteria were present.
The microbiomes of the stressed mice were remarkably different to those of the unstressed mice after they had each given birth. There were more types of bacteria present, and the proportion of one common gut bacteria, Lactobacillus, was significantly reduced.
Like mother, like pup
To see whether these changes had been passed on to the pups, a few days after birth the pups’ nascent gut bacteria was removed from their colon and sequenced. Sure enough, the same bacterial patterns were seen in the pups of stressed mothers.
By analysing tissue from the pups’ hypothalamus – a brain area involved in hormone control, behaviour and sleep, among other things – the team was able to infer which genes were affected by the stress-induced changes in each mother’s microbiome.
They found that the expression of 20 genes was affected by the decrease in Lactobacillus, including genes related to the production of new neurons and the growth of synaptic connections in the brain.
These genetic outcomes in the brain are probably a result of a different suite of nutrients and metabolites circulating in the “stressed” pup’s blood, thanks to the altered gut flora they inherited. Indeed, when the team analysed the blood of the pups of the stressed mothers, they found that there were fewer molecules present necessary for the formation of essential neurotransmitters – chemicals that transmit signals to the brain. Furthermore, there were lower levels of a molecule thought to protect the brain from harmful oxidative stress.
“These changes are significant and are likely to be important for determining how the brain initially develops and how it will respond in the future to things like stress or changes in the environment,” says Tracy Bale, Howerton’s supervisor during the research and director of the University of Pennsylvania lab.
As well as changing the nutrients available, the microbiome could also affect the brain via the immune system or by innervating the nerves in the gut that connect to it. “These three mechanisms aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s likely that they all play a role,” says Howerton.
If the same effects are seen in humans, there may be a straightforward solution. “We can easily manipulate the bacteria we have inside of us,” says Howerton. For example, if a certain cocktail of bacteria is found to be beneficial to the newborns of stressed mothers, we could give it to them right after birth, he suggests. This approach could also benefit babies born via C-section, who do not pass through their mother’s birth canal, or those born to mothers whose gut bacteria has been disrupted as a result of antibiotic use during pregnancy.
Bale is now investigating the link between bacteria and brain development in pregnant women who have been through several traumatic experiences to analyse the effects on their babies’ gut bacteria. She also intends to follow their children’s behaviour as they grow up.
“This is a remarkable trans-disciplinary study in how it bridged multiple organ systems to illuminate a complex question,” says Catherine Hagan from the University of Missouri in Columbia. She says that more work needs to be done to show a causal link. “Mice are not tiny people – people are not big mice – more data is needed to understand how stress in mothers affects brain development in children,” she says. “That said, mice and people have enough in common that this study provides a rationale for allocating resources to address such a concern.”
“At the end of the day, most of what makes you ‘you’, and what drives your quality of life, comes down to the brain,” says Bale. “It’s this very important, vulnerable tissue that is susceptible to many perturbations. If the microbiome is proven to be one of these driving forces, then it’s essential we know just how factors in our environment can change it and can reprogram the brain.”
The research was presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California.