Research: New insights into brain ageing 

LKCMedicine Prof Sven Pettersson
Professor Sven Pettersson leads an international research team that discovered how microbes in our gut could form new nerve cells that may help prevent memory loss.

An international research team led by LKCMedicine Professor Sven Pettersson has made an outstanding discovery that millions of microbes living in our gut could stimulate the production of new nerve cells in the adult brain. This study unlocks the potential to prevent memory loss in old age and how these microbes can help repair and renew nerve cells after injury. This research also offers new insights on brain ageing, the potential of dietary modification and next generation treatments for neurodegenerative conditions including but not limited to Alzheimer’s disease. 

Visiting Professor Pettersson, who is from the National Neuroscience Institute of Singapore (NNI), leads the team that comprises research scientists from Singapore, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States and Sweden. 
Members of the multi-disciplinary team hail from institutions that include the UK Dementia Research Institute at Imperial College London; Karolinska Institutet; Murdoch University; Pennsylvania State University; University of Toronto; Sunway University; and from Singapore, the NNI and LKCMedicine.
A key finding by the team reveals that the gut microbes that metabolise tryptophan – an essential amino acid – secrete small molecules called indoles that can stimulate the development of new brain cells in adults. 

LKCMedicine - Gut bacteria.Gut bacteria.

Prof Pettersson and his team further discovered that the indole-mediated signals can elicit key regulatory factors known to be important for the formation of new adult neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain also associated with memory and learning. 

This significant study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

“This finding is exciting because it provides a mechanistic explanation of how gut-brain communication is translated into brain cell renewal, through gut microbe produced molecules stimulating the formation of new nerve cells in the adult brain. These findings bring us closer to the possibility of novel treatment options to slow down memory loss, which is a common problem with ageing and neurodegenerative diseases including but not limited to Alzheimer’s disease. These include drugs to mimic the action of indoles to stimulate the production of new neurons in the hippocampus or to replace neurons damaged by stroke and spinal injury, as well as designing dietary intervention using food products enriched with indoles as a preventive measure to slow down ageing,” said Prof Pettersson.  

“The work reported in this paper addresses the formation of neurons in the adult brain. We are currently assessing whether indoles can also stimulate early formation of neurons during brain development. Another area of potential intervention interest is in situations of stroke or spinal injury where there is an urgent need to generate new neurons. It is an interesting and exciting time ahead of us,” he added.

Co-author of the study, Professor Paul Matthews who is the Centre Director at UK Dementia Research Institute at Imperial College London, Edmond and Lily Safra Chair, NIHR Senior Investigator, and Head of the Department of Brain Sciences, said, “There is increasing interest in our microbiomes and the connection between gut and brain health. This study is another intriguing piece of the puzzle highlighting the importance of lifestyle factors and diet. Importantly, it also points to new much-needed treatment opportunities for the diseases that cause dementia – now the leading cause of death in the UK.”