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University of Basel

09 June 2022

Good bacteria to tackle depression

Black and white photo of a hand at the window with view to opposite house wall
Probiotics could support the effect of antidepressants. (Symbolic image: Kristina Tripkovic, unsplash)Photo: Kristina Tripkovic, unsplash

Intestinal flora plays an important role in health – including mental health. Researchers from the University of Basel and the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel (UPK) have shown that probiotics can support the effect of antidepressants and help to alleviate depression.

When he was visited by what he called “the black dog”, Winston Churchill could barely get out of bed. He had no energy, no interests and no appetite. Although the British prime minister didn’t invent this metaphor for depression, he was the one who popularized it.

Experts use medication and psychotherapy to try to help patients escape from the “black dog”, but it persists in some individuals. Researchers are therefore searching for ways to improve existing therapies and develop new ones. One promising approach is the microbiome-gut-brain axis. The microbiome is generally understood to mean all the microorganisms that live in or on the human body, such as the intestinal flora. Intestinal bacteria can influence the nervous system for instance via metabolic products.

In a recent study, a research team from the University of Basel and the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel (UPK) has shown that probiotics can support treatment with antidepressants. They have reported their findings in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Intestinal flora influences the psyche

It is known from previous studies that patients with depression show an above-average prevalence of intestinal and digestive problems. If the intestinal flora of people with depression is implanted in mice raised in sterile conditions – that is, with no intestinal flora – then the animals also develop depressive-like behavior. For example, they are less energetic and show decreased interest in their surroundings than their peers. Researchers therefore suspect that the composition of the bacterial community in the gut plays an important role in depressive symptoms.

“Although the microbiome-gut-brain axis has been the subject of research for a number of years, the exact mechanisms are yet to be fully clarified,” says Schaub. This was another reason why the researchers believed it was important to use a wide range of bacteria in the form of probiotics, such as formulations already available on the market. “With additional knowledge of the specific effect of certain bacteria, it may be possible to optimize the selection of bacteria and to use the best mix in order to support treatment for depression,” says the researcher – although she is keen to emphasize that probiotics are not suitable as a sole treatment for depression.

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