Gut-brain axis: Targets for improvement of cognition in the elderly

Otto W. Witte (l.), Christiane Frahm (r.) and young researcher Nayana Gaur (m.).

Otto W. Witte (l.), Christiane Frahm (r.) and young researcher Nayana Gaur (m.). Image: Michael Szabó, UKJ

Young scientists will investigate the mechanisms of the "gut-brain-axis" to make use of them in diagnose and prevention of cognitive functional decline

Science calls the interaction between digestive and thinking organ the "gut-brain axis" and is only just beginning to understand its complexity. The bacteria in the intestine, known in its wholeness as the intestinal flora or microbiome, are involved in much more processes than merely in food processing. The microbiome intermediates immune processes, studies even show the connection between changes in the intestinal flora and mental and neurodegenerative diseases. The signal pathways and the cause-and-effect relationships of this complex interaction are the subject of current research.

Objective: microbiome-based therapies against decreasing mental activity in ageing

The gut microbiome also plays an important role in the brain’s ability to learn. The European research network SmartAge was established to investigate this connection more closely with a view to the age-related decrease in cognitive functions. "We are interested in whether and how measures to improve the cognitive abilities of older people have an impact on the intestinal flora. With this knowledge, we want to develop microbiome-based therapies that slow down the loss of cognitive function in old age," describes Otto W. Witte the SmartAge research program. The neurologist of the Jena University Hospital is the coordinator for the network of 16 scientific institutions and innovative companies from 10 European countries.

The interdisciplinary SmartAge team includes experts from medicine, psychology, life sciences and technology who will jointly supervise 15 young scientists. In accordance with the translational research concept, they work with animal models, conduct clinical trials, use high-throughput methods, state-of-the-art imaging and systems biology approaches. For example, the effects of the diabetes drug metformin or of a diet with the fiber oat beta-glucan on the gut-brain axis will be tested.

The three sub-projects in Jena will deal with sports and exercise, which are proven to promote cognitive abilities in old age. In both animal models and humans, the researchers want to investigate how physical activity influences the interaction between the intestinal flora and the brain. The BrainAGE method, developed in Jena and basing on MRI data, will also be used to determine the biological age of the brain.

Young scientist with their own network

"In addition to the scientific work, networking, mobility and a wide range of advanced training for the young scientists are our central concerns. That is why regular meetings, exchange programs, method and soft skills courses are also on the agenda," says Dr Christiane Frahm, the scientific officer of SmartAge. In this way, the young researchers are not only prepared for independent research, but are also given the opportunity to build their own scientific network. This is another aim of SmartAge, which is funded as an Innovative Training Network within the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions of the EU. The network will be supported by nearly 4 million euros within the EU Horizon 2020 program.

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