Led by Prof Sven Pettersson from the National Neuroscience Institute, researchers at the ASEAN Microbiome and Nutrition Centre are diving deep into the gut to explore how the ecosystem of microorganisms in our digestive tract contribute to human health and wellness. 

You may already be familiar with how healthy eating is key to staving off heart disease, obesity and more. The saying “you are what you eat” is increasingly being backed by evidence as research suggests the food we consume impacts age-related chronic diseases, including neurogenerative diseases like dementia.

The link between what we eat and how our brain functions lies within our gut microbiome. This refers to an ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microbes found in the digestive system. These microbes secrete metabolites which travel through the bloodstream to impact our immunity, metabolism, behaviour and organ functioning.

“30 per cent of the metabolites in the bloodstream originate from microbiomes, making them an elegant way to communicate with any organ in the body,” shared Prof Sven Pettersson

As Director, ASEAN Microbiome and Nutrition Centre (AMNC) and Principal Investigator, Department of Research, National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Prof Pettersson is leading the charge to understand the communication pathways from gut to brain.

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Understanding the macro impact of microorganisms

For example, he led a recent study on germ-free mice that were not exposed to living bacteria, showing that gut microbial metabolites, such as indoles and butyrate, induce the formation of new neurons in the adult brain. These data establish a direct link between the formation of new brain cells in the adult brain and secretion of microbial metabolites.  

This is important because gut microbes respond rapidly to dietary changes and food can be an elegant way to guide microbe function using food intervention therapy, Prof Pettersson said.

Significantly, the findings have implications in light of the ageing population, as it becomes plausible that food products enriched with indoles may be used as a dietary intervention for age-related brain disorders.

As such, he said: “The AMNC has a clear focus to develop knowhow that can be translated to stakeholders such as small food companies, so they can generate food programmes for healthcare institutions.”

He noted that there are advantages to using food instead of drugs as treatment. Firstly, it is likely to be well received in places like Asia, where there is an existing tradition to handle health issues with food interventions. Secondly, food products can be developed, trialled and brought to market at a faster pace—ensuring more timely treatment.

Setting the stage for microbiomes to flourish in the 21th century of precision medicine.

This looks to change as the growing ageing population and rising emphasis on population health and preventive medicine in Singapore is drawing interest in microbiomes. Coupled with the strong biomedical foundation Singapore has built up over the years, conditions are now conducive for microbiome research to flourish.

The AMNC will play a crucial role in this as it consolidates the broad range of interdisciplinary scientists interested in microbiome research under a single umbrella. This will result in the formation of a critical mass of investigators working in a concerted action to be internationally competitive and to be able to deliver world class research under AMNC, explained Prof Pettersson. 

He added: “Science is not a single enterprise anymore, those days are gone—anybody can come up with a unique idea, but to translate it takes teamwork. Collaboration is the fundamental basis of science!”

True to this notion, the AMNC is eager to collaborate, and is already tapping on the expertise of centres in Malaysia, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Sweden to accelerate the research process.

With the air of an experienced scientist, Prof Pettersson felt that to speculate now about the success of these collaborations would be “astrology”. Yet, beneath his caution lies an unwavering optimism.    

“I hope that five to ten years down the road, the AMNC will have delivered clear results that has been translated into food programmes that are being used to prevent/postpone onset of age related diseases and prolong human health span amongst the Silver generation of Singapore,” he concluded.

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