Jan. 26, 2022

Accelerator will fuel gut-brain axis research at International Microbiome Centre to shed light on neurodevelopmental disorders

Research around modulating crosstalk between the microbiome and the brain holds great promise for alleviating symptoms and conditions that commonly co-occur with autism, ADHD and Tourette syndrome

Can the gut talk the brain out of a neurodevelopmental disorder? Recent research has pointed to the microbiome — that miraculous “community” of bacteria that lives in our bodies — as potentially associated with the modulation of brain development. In other words, it’s possible that, if we can understand how the gut influences the brain, we may be able to treat symptoms that commonly occur for people with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD and Tourette syndrome.

Kathy McCoy

Kathy McCoy says there's much to learn about how the human microbiome affects development of the brain, leading to new ways to improve health.

Dr. Kathy McCoy, PhD, is an immunologist and professor at UCalgary’s Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases; she’s also the scientific director of the International Microbiome Centre (IMC) at the Cumming School of Medicine. Some of her current cutting-edge research explores the mechanistic understanding of the microbiome in children that have neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“There’s a lot of intriguing data coming out right now about how changing the microbiota environment of a child or pregnant mom can have an effect on brain development,” says McCoy. “My lab really wants to find out how microbes communicate to the body and influence development of the brain.”

The newly created Azrieli Accelerator will help advance research, treatments and understanding of the influence of the microbiome on both brain development and gut-health side-effects common to certain neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs). By increasing our understanding of the mechanisms by which the microbiome modulates NDDs, there is hope to potentially develop targeted therapies for intervention to improve the quality of life for individuals with NDDs. This knowledge provides great promise because, unlike our genes, the microbiome is a more readily modifiable factor. “Our goal is to modulate the microbiota to alleviate co-morbidities that go along with these conditions,” says McCoy.

A globally recognized centre for such game-changing exploration by experts in microbiome research, the cutting-edge IMC attracts supporters and researchers from around the world. For McCoy and her team, the IMC provides the best facilities in the world to undertake this kind of research, with this level of specificity.

Research has shown that the microbiome can, indeed, be shaped for better health long after birth. Nor does neurodevelopment stop at birth, says McCoy. “The brain continues to develop and there is so much we can learn about how gut microbiota can change and help modulate the brain,” she says.

While there’s a lot we still don’t understand, adds McCoy, “there’s a lot to suggest that this is an area we can learn so much from — and the more we learn about how the gut talks to the brain, the more we can define and look for mechanisms that make a difference to our health.”

The Azrieli Accelerator will transform neurodevelopment research across the lifespan through collaborative and transdisciplinary teams committed to improving the lives of all those affected by neurodevelopmental disabilities. This new initiative — made possible by the Azrieli Foundation — will enhance collaborations across the university, in the community and throughout the global network. It builds upon the university’s more than 50-year history of advancing related research, which has been supported by transformative investments by government, community partners and generous philanthropists, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation; the Owerko, Cumming, Hotchkiss, Snyder, Mathison, and Fenwick families; and many others.

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