'We think conditions like depression are located in the brain, but maybe we're looking in the wrong place.' Clinical neuroscientist Laura Steenbergen studies how microbiota-gut-brain interactions affect cognition and well-being.
Mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, are placing a heavy and continuously growing burden on public health and are calling for a resolution. Such a resolution is commonly sought in our brain. But animal and human studies support the idea that bacteria in our gut (i.e., the gut microbiota) are crucial in supporting optimal brain functioning; the bidirectional microbiota-gut-brain axis provides a paradigm shift with the potential for promoting mental health. Indeed, the bacteria in our gut have been suggested as a key factor in one’s response to stress and emotions, which shapes vulnerability to emotional disorders such as depression. Crucial is the nervus vagus (tenth cranial nerve), which runs through the entire human body and is connected to all organs. In fact, the vagus nerve is the only direct physical connection between our intestines, which hold a nervous system of their own, and our brain. Those ‘gut feelings’ we sometimes get and those butterflies in our stomach? They’re real, and they shape our feelings, thoughts, and behavior in more ways than you probably think!
Dr. Laura Steenbergen is an Assistant Professor at the Clinical Psychology Unit of the Leiden University, and board member of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition. With "Mind the Microbes", her research project aimed at understanding the human microbiota-gut-brain axis, Steenbergen hopes to contribute to the prevention of mental illness, and thus to increasing people’s mental health. For her work thus far, she was awarded the Young Scientist Award (2018) by the European Society for Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.