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Your "Second Brain" and Well-Being

Photo by Good_Studio / iStock

Melissa Rosenkranz, an associate scientist at the Center, studies how the brain and body communicate. Building on previous work examining how stress increases inflammation in the body, Rosenkranz is studying the role of microscopic bacteria, fungi and viruses — called the “microbiome” — in our physical and mental health.

Melissa Rosenkranz

What is the microbiome and why is it important?

The microbiome refers to communities of microbial cells like bacteria, fungi and viruses that inhabit a specific area – in this case, the human body. 

Our bodies are teeming with microbes that play a crucial role in everything from our immune responses to digestion and mood. Everyone’s microbial signature is different, and what we want to know is whether the composition and diversity of the microbiome affects our well-being. 

These microbial communities are referred to as your “second brain” because, like the brain, they can interpret information and send signals that direct biological processes in the body.

“Our hypothesis is that the makeup of a person’s microbiome may influence the brain’s response to stress.”

Melissa Rosenkranz

How are you studying the microbiome in your research? 

We’ve studied people with asthma and discovered that the microbiome in the lungs of people who are chronically stressed is different from people with asthma who do not have chronic stress. Our hypothesis is that the makeup of a person’s microbiome may influence the brain’s response to stress. We’ve found that people with high levels of chronic stress seem to have less diversity in their lung microbiome, meaning it may be more vulnerable to be taken over by one or two species. And if a virus comes along that one population is susceptible to, it can wipe out that species, increasing the chances that person will get sick.

For people with asthma and chronic stress, we suspect their microbiome communities play a role in communicating with the brain and impacting inflammation. We don’t know which influences the other, but there seems to be a link.

What effects could this research have for other diseases?

The scientific community is only beginning to understand the importance of a healthy microbiome in different areas in the body, but there’s reason to believe it may complement traditional means of managing chronic disease.

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