2nd Mar 2018

Gut bugs can slow or boost progress of MS

2nd Mar 2018

Curated by Linda May-Zhang

Mounting evidence points to a link between the make-up of the gut microbiome and multiple sclerosis (MS). Tweaking our bacterial mix can pave the way for new therapies.

In 10 seconds? The millions of diverse bacteria living in our guts can affect our susceptibility to diseases. There seems to be a link with MS too, with certain bacteria multiplying specifically in the guts of MS sufferers. (Read the science)


What do gut microbes do? Depending on which ones you have, you might be protected from or prone to inflammation. These tiny organisms normally work to block toxins that get into your body and support immune responses to keep you healthy. In fact, 70% of the body’s immune cells are found in the tissue lining the gut, so what goes on down there matters. (More on this)

And what if we change their composition? It would impact our immune system. The types of bacteria present can affect how susceptible we are to autoimmune diseases like MS, which develops as an inflammatory reaction to false immune response signals in the body. (More on bacteria and the central nervous system)

So is MS caused by a bacterial imbalance? Well, I didn’t exactly say that. The causes of MS are still being investigated, but some interesting links are being investigated for therapeutic applications. Researchers have discovered how the presence of some bacteria increases and reduces in MS patients’ guts. (Read about bacteria’s role in inflammation)

How did they work this out? They transplanted gut bacteria from MS patients into mice with artificially induced brain inflammation: this bacterial ‘boost’ made the inflammation more severe. In another study, they injected mice with microbes from discordant twins. Mice that received bugs from the twin with MS were 3 times more likely to develop severe brain inflammation than mice receiving bacteria from the healthy twin. (Find out more)

Did they identify microbes that contribute to MS? Scientists found that the microbes that differ in abundance between healthy people and MS patients cause immune cells to trigger inflammation to fight off a false infection, and at the same time, deplete cells that could keep MS in check. They’ve also established how microbes influence the immune attack on nerve-protecting myelin – a key effect of MS. (Read the detail)

Ultimately, will tweaking gut bacteria treat MS? This research alone doesn’t offer a breakthrough, as the microbiome is not the only trigger of MS. But the composition of the gut bugs can be modified, so the idea does have potential for therapy. Studying the role of these bacteria can also help us figure out what might be causing MS. (Read the science)

How to tweak your gut microbiome

Regulating the microbiome has a number of health benefits, but nutritionists advise against any sudden or radical hack.

Their suggestion is to ‘remodel’ the microbiome through a balanced diet, rather than loading it with supplements.

They emphasise the need to quit eating processed foods, lower your sugar intake, get your carbs from vegetables and eat more fermented foods. Also, only take antibiotics – which kill microbes in the gut – when it’s absolutely necessary.

Interestingly, learning to relax and reduce anxiety can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome.

Psst, Linda distilled 19 research papers to save you 823.6 minutes.

Curated by

Linda May-Zhang

Linda is a Postdoctoral Fellow, PhD in Pathology and Molecular Medicine, affiliated with Vanderbilt University, University of Cincinnati, Case Western Reserve University and Northwestern University.

Share this digest