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Microbiota-gut-brain research: A critical analysis

  • Katarzyna B. Hooks (a1) (a2), Jan Pieter Konsman (a3) and Maureen A. O'Malley (a2) (a4)

Abstract

Microbiota-gut-brain (MGB) research is a fast-growing field of inquiry with important implications for how human brain function and behaviour are understood. Researchers manipulate gut microbes (“microbiota”) to reveal connections between intestinal microbiota and normal brain functions (e.g., cognition, emotion, and memory) or pathological states (e.g., anxiety, mood disorders, and neural developmental disorders such as autism). Many claims are made about causal relationships between gut microbiota and human behaviour. By uncovering these relationships, MGB research aims to offer new explanations of mental health and potential avenues of treatment.

So far, limited evaluation has been made of MGB's methods and its core experimental findings, many of which are extensively reiterated in copious reviews of the field. These factors, plus the self-help potential of MGB, have combined to encourage uncritical public uptake of MGB discoveries. Both social and professional media focus on the potential for dietary intervention in mental health, and causal relationships are assumed to be established.

Our target article has two main aims. One is to examine critically the core practices and findings of experimental MGB research and to raise questions about them for brain and behavioural scientists who may not be familiar with the field. The other is to challenge the way in which MGB findings are presented. Our positive goal is to suggest how current problems and weaknesses may be addressed, in order for both scientific and public audiences to gain a clearer picture of MGB research and its strengths and limitations.

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