The relationship between the gut and brain: adverse life experiences affect microbes in the gastrointestinal system and are linked to changes in brain function

By Patrycja Sztachelski

A study at Columbia University found that adverse life experiences have a correlation with increased gastrointestinal symptoms in children that might impact the manner in which their brain and behavior evolve as they reach maturity. Scientists are aware that there is a strong connection between the gut and brain—research has shown that in the cases of up to half of adults with irritable bowel syndrome, a history of trauma or abuse has been reported.

While there has been research on this relationship in adults, there is a lack of research performed in childhood. Although animal studies have indicated that adversity-induced changes in the gut microbiome affect neurological development, this study is “among the first to link disruption of a child’s gastrointestinal microbiome triggered by early-life adversity with brain activity in regions associated with emotional health.”

Researchers focused on development in children who were exposed to institutional care before international adoption, since they had experienced extreme psychosocial deprivation. Children who had succumbed to this adversity showed higher levels of stomach aches, constipation, and vomiting and nausea. Researchers also used gene sequencing to identify microbes in stool samples of these children and compare them to those in the stool of children who had been raised by their biological parents. A significant finding was that the children raised by parents had increased gut microbiome diversity. Since this is linked to the functions of the prefrontal cortex, this served as an advantage to their abilities to regulate emotions.

Researchers recognize that more research has to be performed to reach a sufficient conclusion on the relationship between adverse experiences and brain and gut function.


Columbia University. (2019, March 29). Gastrointestinal complaints in children could signal future mental health problem: Adversity-induced disruptions in the body's gut microbes influence are linked to changes in brain function. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 31, 2019 from