Stress-induced changes in gut bacteria, or gut microbiota, may play a significant part in the possible link between exposure to stress and the risk of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS), a mouse research study says.
In the study “Social-Stress-Responsive Microbiota Induces Stimulation of Self-Reactive Effector T Helper Cells,” researchers showed that social stress changes the gut microbiota of mice, and the genes that are active, triggering the expansion of self-reacting immune cells. This suggests that the onset of stress increases the likelihood that the body would attack itself.
The study, published in the journal mSystems, also noted that some of the bacteria growing in the mice in response to stress have been found in unusually high numbers in the guts of people with MS.
Autoimmune diseases are believed to arise from a complex interplay between genetic and environmental risk factors, some of which have already been linked to MS. Stressful life events also are thought to predispose people to such disorders — but the chain of events behind this link at the cell and molecular levels is still unclear.
Now, immunologist Orly Avni, PhD, and graduate student Michal Werbner, both of Bar Ilan University in Israel, have worked with other collaborators to investigate how stress could lead to autoimmunity.
“We know that there’s strong crosstalk between the immune system and the microbiota,” Avni said in a press release. According to the researcher, an important step in understanding how stress may lead to autoimmune conditions is to identify the genetic responses of bacteria.
The team therefore studied how gut microbiota changed in response to stress in mice with a genetic susceptibility to autoimmunity, specifically to autoimmune optic neuritis (an inflammation that can damage the optic nerve).
To address the impact of stress, researchers divided the mice into two groups: one was exposed to stress in the form of daily, threatening encounters with other aggressive mouse, while the other group was left alone.
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