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Gut Microbes: Do They Have A Role To Play In Social Anxiety?

By Mia Lintott
Gut Microbes: Do They Have A Role To Play In Social Anxiety?

Our body is home to trillions of microbes which form our microbiome. Over the past decade scientists have discovered that our gut microbiome, the bacteria and microorganisms that reside within our gastrointestinal system, play a hugely important and much larger role in our health than once thought. A high gut microbiota diversity has been linked to better general health. Similarly, dysbiosis of the microbiome has also been associated with various psychiatric disorders. In particular, researchers have recently identified that the gut microbiome may play a role in social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder is a mental health condition which is particularly prevalent among younger people. Decreased social interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic are thought to have contributed to increasing levels of social anxiety disorder. Therefore, research into treatments for this type of condition could be considered more important now than ever before.

The gut microbiome: A broad overview

The gut microbiome comprises bacteria, archaea, viruses and eukaryotic microbes. Everyone has a unique microbiome and a number of factors can influence its composition, such as genetics, diet, stress and environment. However, as much as our lifestyle choices can influence our gut, the composition of our microbiome may also influence our behaviour and health. In addition to social anxiety disorder, the gut microbiome has been evidenced to play a pathological role in many other health problems, including depression, autism spectrum disorder, chronic pain, cancer and allergies.

Social anxiety and the gut microbiome

Studies have shown that the gut microbiomes of individuals who suffer from a variety of psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, differ to those of healthy individuals. However, there has been a lack of evidence to indicate whether this difference in gut microbiome diversity precedes or is a consequence of these psychiatric mental health disorders.

Recent research into the relationship between the gut microbiome and social anxiety disorder may indicate that differences in gut microbiota play a causal role in these conditions. A study has found that those suffering from social anxiety disorder have elevated abundance of the genera Anaeromassillibacillus and Gordonibacter and reduced populations of Parasuterella. A further study transplanted gut microbiota from social anxiety disorder patients into mice. In an experimental context, these mice exhibited heightened sensitivity to social fear. Control and ‘social anxiety disorder mice’ were both deterred from interacting with other mice in this experiment, which diminished the social curiosity of both groups. After the experiment, the social curiosity of the control group recovered swiftly and they were no longer fearful of approaching other mice. However, the mice transplanted with the social anxiety disorder associated microbes never regained their sociability and remained fearful of approaching other mice. The social anxiety disorder in mice also showed reduced neuronal oxytocin. Oxytocin, often nicknamed ‘the love hormone’, is associated with reproduction and bonding. The combination of the results which show that social anxiety disorder microbiota transplanted mice displayed heightened social fear and reduced neuronal oxytocin indicate that gut microbiota composition may play a causal role in social anxiety disorder.

Future implications

This deeper understanding of our gut microbiome and its effects on both our mental and physical health presents it as a potential target for treatment of social anxiety disorder, as well as other mental illnesses. In turn, this is likely to stimulate interest into the use of probiotics and synbiotics as therapeutics for psychiatric disorders.

Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria and yeasts which can be found in food products and supplements. Many probiotics restore diversity and balance within your gut microbiome. Synbiotics also contain beneficial microorganisms, but additionally consist of prebiotics – a food source for the microorganisms. Probiotics and synbiotics have already been evidenced to reduce symptoms of depression. Further advances in our understanding of the association between the gut microbiome and psychiatric disorders is likely to prompt new inventions which target this relationship.

Patenting probiotics

At surface level, it may seem challenging to patent probiotics as most gut-beneficial microorganisms may be found in nature or are already widely recognised. However, it may be possible to obtain a patent in relation to a new therapeutic use of a microorganism, or new manufacturing or storage methods. Furthermore, advances in genetic engineering mean that microbes which have advantages over the natural strain can be created. These engineered microbes are not naturally occurring and therefore may be deemed patentable too.

J A Kemp LLP has the specific experience and expertise necessary for drafting, prosecuting and defending patents relating to microbes. We have supported a range of clients for many years and have built and defended comprehensive patent portfolios in diverse fields. We also have in-depth experience in the food and nutrition field, including in relation to the use of microbiological products.