I Study Poop – Adventures from Scientists on the Front Line

Hi there Brain-Gut Lovers, and welcome to another installment of the ‘I Love Poop’ series. Today we get an insight into the world of poop research through a dear friend and research sister Jessica Flannery of the University of Oregon. Take it away Jess!

Tell us a little about yourself.

Hi there! I am a forth year clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Oregon. I work jointly between the Stress Neurobiology and Prevention Lab, led by Philip Fisher and the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab led by Jennifer Pfeifer. Broadly speaking, I am interested in how stress affects brain development and together how these neurobiological relationships not only aide our understanding into child and adolescent mental health and health risk behaviors, but also how they provide a potential “mechanism” for targeted interventions and prevention techniques. My primary methodology has focused on developmental neuroimaging, where I’m specifically interested in how social contexts (e.g., caregivers in early life, peers in adolescence) influence our understanding of how social and emotional processes change across development and how these social factors may dampen or amplify the effects of stress on child and adolescent behavioral outcomes.

How did you get interested in the brain-gut axis or microbiome?

I became interested in gut-brain axis over the last several years as it has become increasing clear from rodent models (and to a lesser extent human studies) that the gut microbiome plays a critical role in the connections between stress and brain development, and that the gut microbiome has a mechanistic role linking mental and physical health outcomes. I was already studying the effects of stress on brain development, but I missing one of the key systems in my model that would allow me to expand my scope and explanatory power of the work I was already doing! There have been some incredible studies and some very compelling reviews regarding the research promise of the gut-brain axis; however, I’ve was stuck by the relative dearth of human studies that have tested some of the gut-brain and gut-stress connections in the key developmental span of early childhood through adolescence; so I become obsessed with learning all I could about this “second brain” and the importance of adding it into my conceptual model.

How long have you been working in this field?

I am very new to this field! I first brought up the potential of incorporating a measure of the gut microbiota into my work with my mentor, Phil Fisher, in 2013, but I was just starting to read more about the gut-brain axis at that point and didn’t have concrete hypotheses to test out in a feasible study design. However, Phil was already in communication about potential collaborative opportunities with Jessica Green, a biodiversity theorist and microbiologist (Here’s a couple of Jessica Green’s Ted Talks to learn more about her work). So in 2015, we revisited the idea and got more serious about the implementation. I contacted Bridget for a crash course in where to begin in the gut-brain-axis world, then drafted a study proposal and we pitched the collaboration to Jessica Green, co-director of the Biology and Build Environment Center at the UO. They agreed and it’s been a fruitful collaboration! We finished data collection just a couple months ago and we are just beginning to dive into our first analyses with close advisement and analysis/interpretation guidance from Roxana Hickey, a post doc in Jessica Green’s lab. I’m excited to see what we find with our first study!

Tell us about your research.

In our first study, we collected data from 40 family homes (children 4-7 years old and their biological mothers) in the greater Eugene area and collected home dust samples (to assess environmental microbes- a key interest area of Roxana Hickey’s). This was a follow-up study from a study being led in the lab by my fellow grad student Leslie Roos. This afforded us the opportunity to connect the gut microbial samples to several psychophysiological variables, such as measures of autonomic and central nervous system, as well as a measure of a stress response system, cortisol reactivity to a laboratory based stressor. One of my main goals, in addition to testing the feasibility of this model, was to see if we could replicate some of the compelling rodent models that documented an association between physiological and environmental stressors and gut microbial health. We are just beginning to analyze the data, but so far, our study demonstrates that collecting fecal samples in community sample of children is in fact doable, as 100% of the returned samples were usable. Moreover, when we look at the Phyla level of community composition, we see a broad range of relative composition of bacteria—which I can’t wait to explore further! I recently presented these preliminary findings with Roxana Hickey in a talk at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored “Changing Microbiomes in Health” Symposium, held at the University of California, San Diego.

Who are some researchers/research papers that you really respect in the field – why? 

To be honest, I have to start with the lovely Bridget who is running this amazing blog and Caitlin Cowan who was just featured on this blog! I was at the International Society for Developmental Psychopathology conference a few years ago when Caitlin and Bridget presented some of their work. I had just started to hear more about the importance of the gut microbiota, and their data was so compelling—I left extremely inspired to get more involved. Since then, I’ve seen Bridget talk about their data a couple times and each time I get more excited about the rodent-human translations!

My list keeps growing as I become more immersed in the literature, but I’ll just list a few other first researchers I’ve found highly influential:

John Cryan- specifically for his fantastic rodent models connecting early life stress, mental health, and gut microbiota. His work has played a large role in my hypotheses formulations.

Rob Knight- specifically for his ground-breaking work characterizing the human gut microbiome in relation to mental health in adults and his co-founding role and involvement in the American Gut Project. His work has played a large role in my understanding of how the gut microbiome functions.

Jack Gilbert- specifically for his co-founding role of the Earth Microbiome Project, which is a remarkable methodological advancement (in which most other fields are far behind!). His work has played a large role in my methodological understanding of the gut microbiota world.

What is next for you? 

 I am in the process of writing an NIH Ruth Kirschstein NRSA application, which would fund a fellowship to increase my training in human gut microbial analyses and interpretation. This training fellowship won’t make me a microbiologist, but my goal is to try to become as fluent as possible in the methods and systems I am interesting in pursuing. This proposal is specifically focused on connecting the gut microbiome to my primary research model and methodology.

What weird and wonderful things have you had to deal with since working in the brain-gut world?

As I mentioned above, this first study required me to drive to each family’s home and to explain to mothers how to collect the fecal sample from their child a week later. During this time, I carried around a toilet seat and a container of green (purposefully not brown) playdough for demonstration. Parents always got a good laugh when I pulled a toilet seat out of my bag and plopped playdough into the collection hat to discuss collection. I was the Mary Poppins of poop supplies! Friends also found it quite entertaining (and concerning) when they got in my car and always saw a toilet seat, along with plastic fecal collection hats in my backseat.

What is your favorite brain-gut fact?

I am still in awe over the complexity of the enteric nervous system. Not quite a fact, but I’ve found learning the gut microbiome to parallel much of the process of learning functional neuroimaging. And just like learning languages, the more I learn, the more parallels I’m able to draw between the processes.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us? 

I look forward to getting to know more people in this field and to hear of new innovative study designs!

I am also really excited about the benefits provided by open data platforms and crowd sourcing data to increase sample sizes, methodological rigor and transparency, which the microbiome world has set a great precedent! The Human Connectome Project, the Earth Microbiome Project, and the American Gut Project are great examples of this model and it would be great to see such efforts translated for developmental populations (particularly high-risk samples, where large samples are difficult to obtain). I would love to combine brainpower and expertise with others to eventually work toward multisite collaborations with researchers studying either specific populations or any age ranges!

Get Connected

Email: jflanner@uoregon.edu

Twitter: @j_flan

Research Gate: researchgate.net/profile/Jessica_Flannery

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