hacking your gut bacteria to get smarter

My latest piece and something you guys might find
interesting – using the gut microbiome as an attack surface for augmenting the
brain. Still very early days, but evidence hinting that diet changes the
composition of your gut bacteria, and the composition of your gut bacteria has
significant effects on your brain – mood, behaviour, cognition, etc.

Not seen any discussion of tweaking microbiome as a body
augment in transhumanist circles, so it’s something fresh to consider.


UK proxy: http://www.bbc.com.nyud.net/future/story/20140221-can-gut-bugs-make-you-smarter


  • I can see where this is a valuable path to consider.  My roommate has documented chronic gut troubles and often a bleak outlook on life.  She gets into a bad mood very easily.  She takes probiotics, drug store variety, regularly but her gut bacteria has been killed off at least once in the last three years.  I can see a believable correlation between the two but of course this is merely one case, not a study.

    TL;DR, my roomy has gut troubles and a bad mood.

    It is my understanding that the garden-variety gut bacteria is responsible for our delicate balance.  And after talking with my roommate it is DELICATE.  What bacteria could be used to increase cognition?  Should the gut bacteria of contemporary geniuses be harvested, cultured and distributed?  Let's say this is plausible; what do we do with this information to benefit humanity?
  • Interesting Q re: transplanting the microbiome of the smart and famous. Makes a change from devouring their reading list... 

    If we want to be in fantasy land and say we had probiotic promoters for each good attribute (cognition, stress tolerance, anxiety, over eating), we'd still likely have to negotiate composition. Boosting one may well come at the cost of another. 

    Much more appealing attack surface than drilling holes in your head and threading wires in there, though!
  • I would get a shirt that says "I take shit from Neil Degrasse Tyson for
    my opinions all the time."  Engineers make terrible sales people so I'll
    hold on to that.

    Promoters would totally become a thing.  Each
    would claim they've got a proprietary, patent-pending, super recipe that
    will improve memory, penis size, bust size, strength and sexual prowess.

    Divergent book/movie and its sequels deal with the issue of people who
    have been genetically tampered with to increase their compassion,
    daring, intelligence but at the cost of becoming incomplete people.  The
    strong are cruel, the smart are cold, the compassionate have no sense
    of self-preservation.

    I'd like to be rich, who wouldn't, but I
    don't want Donald Trump's hair or Bill Gates' physique.  Do you think
    that if we found a magic recipe that made people level 11 we would
    become susceptible to particular diseases that could tear through the
    upgraded people like a plague?
  • That is generally how it works. Overspecialize and you breed in weakness. One of the reasons that biology is so complex and that everything has it's niches is that becoming really great at something basically means that many of your resources are there and not being applied elsewhere.
    There are a finite amount of chemical processes that can happen at any one time. That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, it just means that there a ceiling defined by biochemical / physical reality.

    Let me give you a engineering (albeit chemical) analogy. I work in a lab where we work on marine coatings. There are 2 types right now. Anti fouling, and fouling release (hydrophobic and hydrophilic respectively). Your anti fouling coating doesn't let anything stick to it. however, once something finally does, it's there for good and other things start attaching to it and then its a bitch to clean.you're fouling release coating doesn't mind having things attach to it, because a simple jet of water or the shear force of a boat in water takes it right off. This however means that eventually, things will build up faster than they come off.
    We work with a polymer that is both anti fouling and fouling release. this means things don't really stick and when they do they come off. this compromise of function allows for a much more robust surface that works better than either of the other two. 
    Biology is the same way, compromise of function allows for robust response in organisms. 
    Eat right, get good sleep, stay away from things that cause systemic inflammation, and exercise. Until you are doing these things, no amount of yogurt with special bacteria will help you.
  • @glims I can totally get behind your analogy.  What about people like my roommate?  She stands to gain a great deal if a suitable recipe is made.  She has some unbalance that makes her guts problematic.  She isn't trying to beat the system and gain IQ points but a healthy person's gut bacteria could put her body in line.  She would gladly, GLADLY, suffer from a different disorder to alleviate her gut problems.
  • I don't know anything about your room mate's situation beyond what you have told me, however I am fairly confident that you can't kill _all_ your gut bacteria, just create an unadvantageous balance. Killing all of them means that she is unable to digest food until they come back, not just gut troubles.  Replenishing gut flora can take years to get done properly and every slip up in diet and other habits can have adverse effects.

    I agree that your room mate stands to benefit from a restructuring of native flora, i'm just unable to say if intense modification would be necessary. If it's just a matter of getting up to functional again, I doubt there would be a downside to altering her microbiome, ie no different disorder
    If she just wants to replenish / reset her healthy flora, there is always gut bacteria transplants. While the techniques is a little out there, I hear that it is a blessing for people who have destroyed intestinal flora, and there is solid research that has been done supporting the technique.

    This would, however, be a stop gap if she hasn't taken all the other necessary measures (which i assume she has) such as removing alcohol, processed sugars, glutens, and dairy from her diet as well as not being on any long term antibacterials or immune suppressants for other conditions. I say I assume she has, as I am figuring that there is probably more to the efforts she has made beyond taking probiotic pills from the store.
  • As for the main topic, I think the article got a little away from the research. The main point of the research is that healthy gut bacteria make healthy mammals and reducing that reduces functional ability. To extrapolate in the other direction without and solid data is the type of thing that people really need to stop doing. There is a line at the end that mentions that this is all pie in the sky stuff, but somehow in the article the entire point is turned around and sensationalized. 

    Basically, you can boost your brain, but at this point, it's only a boost up to healthy and highly functional, as almost all of us are debilitated by poor diets and habits.
  • @glims - fair point that it's a tad sensational, I wouldn't have written up the research in this tone for, say New Scientist, but BBC Future is supposed to be a little imaginative... ;) 

    That said, the exciting thing about Cryan's work is that bacteria in your gut should not, by classical thinking, be able to affect your brain, as it's immuno-privileged (and also because gut bacteria aren't technically *inside* your body). So it's an important shift in how we can approach mental health, even if it's not of practical use just yet.  

  • I've been co working with some of the system biology people at the university; everyone here has been on board with these concepts for about 5 years or so, so i'm glad it's getting mainstream exposure even if it is a bit handwavey.

    Immno-privileged sites would have the same controls as normal in this situation. The working model is not that the bacteria are outside or inside your body, but _of_ your body. You're only 10 percent human cells after all. This is why chronic antibacterial use is such an issue; you are basically mostly bacteria. Coming to working terms with your personal microbiota is a necessary skill.
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