It's not news to us that our gut health plays a pivotal role in our brain development and overall immunity. But new research from Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC), shows that a baby's gut microbiome tells even more about neurological development and how to support healthy baby brains.

Researchers from Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill have found that one baby may perceive danger and react to it more than another based on her gut health.

Yes, her gut health. We already know that our digestive system is home to a huge community of microorganisms we call the gut microbiome. We also already know that there is a strong connection to gut health and our brains--known as the gut-brain axis.

Now, researchers from MSU and UNC have found that the gut microbiome in babies with strong fear responses was different than it was in babies who had milder reactions to fear.

How someone reacts to a scary situation is known as their fear response, and in early life, has been found to be a predictor of future mental health.

Dr. Rebecca Knickmeyer is with MSU and the leader of the new research published in Nature Communications. She is an associate professor in the College of Human Medicine's Department of Pediatrics and Human Development. Dr. Knickmeyer says that the microbiome of an infant is a new target that we can look at to see tremendous opportunity for promoting healthy brain development.

She and her team looked at the connection between gut health and its role in fear response in babies based on previous studies showing this connection in animals.

"Fear reactions are a normal part of child development. Children should be aware of threats in their environment and be ready to respond to them." said Knickmeyer, who also works in MSU's Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, or IQ.​

The issue is that if they can't regulate their fear response when they are save, it may have heightened risk of developing depression or anxiety later in life. Conversely, children who have especially muted fear responses can grow up to develop unemotional and callous traits that are often associated with antisocial behavior.

And all of this can be connected with the health of your baby's gut.

The researchers looked at the gut microbiome of 30 babies--none who had been on antibiotics and all of whom were breastfed. They analyzed the stool samples of each baby and assessed the fear response with a simple Halloween mask. The baby's response to how someone entering the room wearing the mask was what they looked specifically for, and Dr. Knickmeyer said the goal was to make it an enjoyable experience for both baby and parents. The parents were with the babies and could be excited and animated and do whatever they felt they needed to do so the experience was fun and enjoyable.

For the babies that showed fear or discomfort despite their parents encouragement to the contrary, the research team found significant associations between specific features of their gut microbiome as well when compared to the other babies.

Using compiled data, babies with out-of-balance microbiomes at just a month old were also found to be more fearful when they were a year old. The content of a one-year-old's gut also had relationship with their fear responses when compared with less fearful children. Babies with less fearful responses had more of some types of bacteria and less of others.

They did note that there didn't seem to be a connection between gut health and how the children responded to strangers entering the room but NOT wearing masks. This is likely because there are different parts of our brains involved when we are assessing potentially frightening situations. Strangers present a social element of assessment and babies may be wary, but not necessarily an immediate threat eliciting a fear response in babies as one wearing a mask.

The team also looked at the children's brains using MRIs and found that a one-year-old's microbial community was associated with the size of their amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that assesses potential threats and makes quick decisions.

All of this connection leads us to see a great opportunity to support a baby's neurological health in their early days. Dr. Knickmeyer said they plan to learn more about what they can do to foster healthy growth and development.

And leads us to continue to emphasize as we always have at Mothering: Gut health MATTERS, even in your wee little ones.

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