Editor’s note: In this article, John Sepp builds on his June 2022 piece on the microbiome and gut health by outlining some promising developments in the research of fecal transplants as an approach to treating physiological and psychological conditions. This article goes into some detail about the process of conducting a fecal transplant, if you are squeamish about the human body–or if you are currently eating–you may not want to read this piece.
By John Sepp
Think of the bacteria in our gut as the oil to our cars. Without it, the car cannot run smoothly, and risks breaking down. When we go in for an oil change, we notice that our car gets better gas mileage, the engine becomes more efficient, and there is less buildup of debris inside. Is there a human equivalent for this analogy? In this article, I will discuss a very promising area of research within the microbiome: fecal transplants.
When we become ill, particularly gastrointestinally, we may seek antibiotics to restore our health and clear out the bad bacteria in our gut that is the culprit behind our discomfort. This results not only in the elimination of the “bad” bacteria, but also the good bacteria that facilitates a healthy environment in our gut and helps it function. This can result in even more damage, allowing certain bacteria to take over and wreak havoc. An area within microbiome research that has been proven to help combat Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that causes colitis and inflammation, involves transplanting the feces of a healthy donor into a patient who is suffering from a severe C. difficile infection. It is a more complicated process than you may think, as the donor feces must be intensively screened to rule out any infectious agents or disease causing pathogens. Once it is approved, it is filtered and administered to the donor in a colonoscopy-like manner. This type of treatment floods the gut with healthy bacteria that outcompetes C. difficile, making it difficult for it to continue colonizing and causing infections.
Mitigating the harmful effects of bacterial infections is not the only success that researchers and doctors are aiming for with fecal transplants. Recently, there have been studies performed that have targeted insulin sensitivity, potentially resulting in healthier weight management in individuals with obesity. Even more interesting, however, is a research study being conducted in connection to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While the primary cause of ASD is currently unknown, doctors believe that a connection exists between the metabolites of gut bacteria and the central nervous system, affecting social behavior. When a fecal transplant from autistic children were introduced into mice, their microbiome was reshaped into one characteristic of the donor. This included an increase in the phylum Mycoplasmatota and a decrease in Actinobacteria. What may be the key in this experiment is what happened to the immune system in the brain and intestines. Following the fecal transplant, there was a measurable increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines, the messenger molecules that act as signals for the immune system to act, affecting the cells in our body. As a result, the experimental mice had newfound difficulties in completing directional maze tasks, similar to ASD in humans from a neuroscience perspective. The takeaway from this study is that the gut microbiota may indeed play a role in modulating social patterns in mice, and thus in humans as well.
The importance of the microbiome cannot be underestimated, and scientists are swiftly trying to uncover new connections and breakthroughs in regards to our health. Fecal transplantation is just one facet of this, and in the coming decades we will have a much clearer picture and more intricate techniques to comprehend how the bacteria in our gut interact with our bodies and shape who we are. Just as we are taught to not harm our bodies with cigarettes, too much sugar, a lack of exercise, or general unhealthy practices, it is reasonable now for us to pay more attention to such an important organ in our body—and take care of it in the best way possible. We all know that eating healthy has its own benefits for ourselves, but now it holds even more importance when it comes to keeping the bacteria healthy that we house throughout our entire lives.
John graduated from the University of Michigan in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Health and Society (BHS). His favorite courses have been immunology, sociology, and public health, and he plans on going to graduate school in one of these areas in the coming year. He has taken an increased interest in mental health because of COVID, seeing how much it has affected our society just as much as our physical health.