Brain development/Law/Policy School of Medicine

How bacteria can save children’s lives

A ground-breaking new project in Bangladesh could help reduce the life-long health problems that come from childhood malnourishment – by focusing on the gut.

From BBC – Future

For decades, undernourished infants across the world have been treated with a course of high-calorie, high-protein rich foods. The foods may come in various forms – from peanut-rich pastes to fatty milkshakes – but the common-sense philosophy is always the same: restore the most basic nutrients to the growing body as quickly as possible.

These “ready-to-use therapeutic foods” help to remove the immediate danger to the child’s life. But the battle is only half-won.

The period of undernourishment may be for just a few months, but consequences can last a lifetime. Throughout childhood and adolescence, the child will remain physically stunted and more vulnerable to infection. He or she also may show cognitive deficits, resulting in lower IQs, and reduced impulse control – which can mean falling behind at school and struggling to find employment as an adult.

But ground-breaking new research suggests that we may be overlooking a key potential solution: the tens of trillions of friendly bacteria living in our digestive tract, together known as the gut microbiota. “We are a sublime mixture of human and microbial parts,” says Jeffrey Gordon, the director of the Center for Genome Science and Systems Biology at Washington University in St Louis – and these teeming communities of invisible allies are now thought to be essential for our health and well-being. The gut microbiota is so important, in fact, that scientists such as Gordon often refer to it as a separate ‘organ’.

According to Gordon’s theory, many of the long-term consequences of malnutrition can be directly linked to a disruption of the gut microbiota. And by correcting that imbalance, you may be able to nudge a child’s growth back on the right path.

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gordon has been leading pioneering studies in Malawi and Bangladesh to test the truth of this idea. And the early results look promising.

  Read more at the BBC.