For the longest time, we’ve discussed the connection between the brain and gut, better known as the gut-brain axis, and how it affects an array of human health variables from emotions to protecting your baby’s brain.

That connection may also be responsible for higher levels of cognitive development in young babies, depending on the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut, according to research featured recently in Biological Psychiatry.

Smelly diapers

To assess the relationship between the gut and brain development, researchers at the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) School of Medicine studied fecal samples from 1-year-old babies. Those samples were analyzed then separated into one of three microbial communities.

A year later, that same group of infants was given a series of cognitive tests that measured their language, perception and motor skills.

Overall, babies with higher concentrations of the Bacteroides bacterial genus did the best on cognitive tests. Interestingly, babies with more diverse gut microbiomes didn’t perform as well, a big surprise to UNC scientists.

“We had originally predicted that children with highly diverse microbiomes would perform better – since other studies have shown that low diversity in infancy is associated with negative health outcomes, including type 1 diabetes and asthma,” says Dr. Rebecca Knickmeyer, a member of UNC’s Department of Psychiatry, according to a press release.

“Our work suggests that an ‘optimal’ microbiome for cognitive and psychiatric outcomes may be different than an ‘optimal’ microbiome for other outcomes.”

Gut-brain communication

Another interesting aspect of this study is the realization that the guts and the developing brains of babies may be communicating in very unique ways we’re just learning about every day, Dr. Knickmeyer says.

“That’s something that we are working on now, so we’re looking at some signaling pathways that might be involved. Another possibility is that the bacterial community is acting as a proxy for some other process that influences brain development – for example, variation in certain dietary nutrients.”

Another huge takeaway from this study in measuring the microbiomes of infants: Adult-like gut microbiome communities emerging at such an early age, implying that the ideal age in which to intervene would happen before age 1, says UNC grad student Alexander Carlson.

“Big picture: these results suggest you may be able to guide the development of the microbiome to optimize cognitive development or reduce the risk for disorders like autism which can include problems with cognition and language,” says Dr. Knickmeyer.

Although researchers were hesitant to speculate how probiotics may play a role, a severe imbalance of gut bacteria — specifically Lactobacillus reuteri — may be a trigger for autism, based on a recent study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine.

These deficits, along with the exploding growth of babies being delivered via Cesarean section in America, puts the health of our most vulnerable at risk from the very beginning of their lives.

A targeted, non-drug solution like a probiotic, like EndoMune Junior Probiotic, may be a safe way to promote better gut health and smarter brains.