Could the gut microbiome hold the key to neurodegenerative disorders?

A major grant has been awarded to researchers from the Leonard Wolfson Experimental Neurology Centre, run by University College London and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (all London, UK), to investigate the relationship between the gut microbiome and neurodegenerative disorders, such as motor neurone disease (MND).

MND has a high mortality, with approximately a third of patients dying within a year of diagnosis.  The funding, worth £1.2 million, has been awarded by the Reta Lila Weston Trust to a team of scientists hoping to elucidate how alterations in the gut microbiome could slow progression of MND and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Nikhil Sharma (University College London), who will be leading the research, explained: “It is remarkable that there is a two-way conversation between gut flora and cells in the brain. However, we do not know how this relates to progression in people living with MND.

“Not only will our research address this question, but we will explore whether changing the gut flora could slow progression in ‘real world’ patients. This could fundamentally change our approach to treating neurodegenerative diseases.”

The study will utilize state-of-the-art imaging methods to assess changes in the gut microbiota, including one of the first combined PET-MRI scanners in the UK, transcranial magnetic stimulation and muscle imaging. The team will investigate whether alterations in gut microbiota could influence microglial cells in the brain, which are thought to be central to MND pathology.

The team have hypothesized that microglia may be able to protect motor neurons early in MND, thereby presenting a target for slowing disease progression. The researchers will utilize the PET-MRI imaging to assess microglia activation and elucidate their role with regards to the gut microbiota.

Garfield Mitchell, Chair of the Reta Lila Weston Trust, commented:  “Funding world-class research is vital if we are to discover whether the solution to some of the most devastating neurodegenerative conditions of our time lies not in our brains but in our gut. Dr Sharma’s research could lead to a major breakthrough in understanding whether the microbiome holds the key to preventing or slowing down the progress of diseases such as MND.”

Results are not expected until 2021; however, Sharma and colleagues hope their findings will hold promise for a wide array of neurodegenerative disorders.

Brian Dickie from the Motor Neurone Disease Association (Northampton, UK), concluded: “There is increasing evidence that microglia can influence the severity and progression of neurodegenerative diseases, but there are major challenges in developing drugs that target the brain. The idea of targeting activity in the gut, upstream of events occurring in the brain, offers exciting new prospects for treatment”




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