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‘@PLOSNeuro #SfN14 Preview: Microbiome Galore at SfN 2014, by Rachel Zamzow

By Rachel Zamzow, who will be blogging with PLOS Neuroscience at SfN 2014

In keeping with the hottest areas of research, SfN 2014 will present a symposium on the gut microbiome and its role in disorders of the central nervous system. I’ll be blogging about this symposium, so be sure to check back here for coverage of the talks. Here are the symposium specifics for your itinerary:

762. Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience
Emeran A. Mayer Symposium
Wednesday, Nov 19, 2014, 1:30 PM-4:00 PM WCC 146AB

Microbial environment of the gut. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Following in the footsteps of the genome, proteome, and other -omes, the microbiome has been increasingly explored as an avenue to understand what makes us who we are, in health and in disease. The microbiome comprises the microorganisisms that exist both in and on our bodies, outnumbering our cells ten to one. This vibrant ecological community flexes with each meal we eat, any medications we take and even the time of day.

The SfN symposium speakers will explore how our microbial counterparts may be disrupted in brain disorders or may even play a role in their cause, as well as how the microbiome shapes neurodevelopment. The following experts will speak at the symposium:

  • John Cryan, professor and chair of anatomy and neuroscience at University College Cork in Ireland, will discuss the role of the microbiome in stress, neurodevelopment and behavior.
  • Sarkis Mazmanian, professor of microbiology at Caltech, will present on the evidence linking the gut microbiome and autism spectrum disorder.
  • Rob Knight, HHMI Early Career Scientist and professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder will share about American Gut, a citizen science project designed to explore the gut microbiome.
  • Kirsten Tillisch, an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, will further discuss the connections between the gut microbiome and the brain.

Drs. Knight and Tillisch were kind enough to answer a few questions before they head off D.C. Get to know them below.

If you could use a magic wand to improve one aspect of how research is conducted, what would you do?
Knight: More attention to experimental designs that are adequately powered and avoid confounding factors.
Tillisch: There would be a major shift toward research done in humans, with an emphasis on longitudinal rather than cross sectional studies.

What, in your view, is the one most exciting finding that neuroscience has produced?
Knight: Optogenetics (which I guess is more of a technique than a finding per se) — but its potential for unraveling neural mechanisms is immense.
Tillisch: That is a very difficult one – I suppose in a general sense it is the increasing understanding of neuroplasticity and the fact that our brains are capable of continued structural and functional change. I find that idea quite hopeful.

What are some current challenges to better understanding the topic you are working on?
Knight: Combining multiple ‘omics techniques is expensive and the data are currently too hard to analyze.
Tillisch: One of the biggest challenges is not being able to measure the [brain-gut] connections very well in humans – the autonomic and enteric nervous system are not very accessible to us so we are working to link the brain with the microbiome without a good idea of what is going on in the middle on an ongoing basis.

In his recent New York Times piece, science writer Ed Yong makes the argument that there is no “healthy” microbiome, meaning that each of our microbiomes shift regularly in and out of states that could be considered pathological to some and not to others. What are your thoughts on this assertion or the piece in general?
Knight: I don’t know of adequate data to support that assertion— but it’s possible, although to make an analogy to diet the same person might eat a salad one day and a bacon cheeseburger the next. That doesn’t mean we can’t say anything meaningful about diet and nutrition with the current state of knowledge, although there is still much to learn.
Tillisch: I agree, there is no “normal” microbiota structure across the board, the diversity across individuals is huge. However, the way the microbiota function within the individual is likely fairly consistent– we all need the same basic help from our microbes so it is fair to assume there are basic functional commonalities shared by the microbial communities in healthy humans.

What piece of advice would you give to a first-time SfN Annual Meeting attendee?*
Tillisch: Instead of going to the talks about the topics you know, just read those, and instead go to topics that might inspire your work 2 or 3 years from now.
*Knight is an SfN first-timer this year.

The views expressed in this post belong to the author and are not necessarily those of PLOS.

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