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People Now Looking In Diapers For Clues to What Makes Kids Smart

Photograph by Twenty20

Checking the color and consistency of a baby's diaper debris can tell parents a lot about their newborn's health. There are so many variations on what you'll find that an actual chart exists to describe what each one means.

There's a newborn's greenish-black, tarry, sticky poop that looks like motor oil and has no smell (enjoy that short ride while it lasts!) and, more seriously, blood streaked, which indicates a milk protein allergy or—worse yet—a severe intestinal issue.

There's yet more information stored up in the disposables—but it's information we can't see. And, as researchers are beginning to find out, it's information that pertains to a baby's brain. According to a new study from a University of North Carolina School of Medicine, certain microscopic elements in baby poop are associated with cognitive development.

Rebecca Knickmeyer, associate professor of psychiatry at UNC, and her colleagues sought to find out specifics about any early relationships between the gut microbiome and brain development. She worked with a team to collect and examine fecal samples from 89 1-year-olds, and grouped the samples based on microbial similarities.

The sample providers were then tested at age 2 for certain cognitive abilities, such as fine and gross motor skills, perceptual abilities and language development. And that's when the researchers made their striking finding: One particular community of bacteria was consistently found in the group of kids who performed better on cognitive test—something that had never been demonstrated before in humans.

The infants that had high levels of the Bacteroides scored higher than those in the other two sample clusters. Moreover, the babies with less diverse microbiomes outperformed babies with highly diverse gut microbiomes—which came as a surprise.

"We had originally predicted that children with highly diverse microbiomes would perform better—since other studies have shown that low diversity in infancy is associated with negative health outcomes, including type 1 diabetes and asthma," Knickmeyer said. "Our work suggests that an 'optimal' microbiome for cognitive and psychiatric outcomes may be different than an 'optimal' microbiome for other outcomes."

The brain-gut connection has been an area of, well, healthy study in the last decade, as scientists explore the microbial flora of humans' insides.

Exciting? Yes. First of its kind research? Not exactly. The brain-gut connection has been an area of, well, healthy study in the last decade, as scientists explore the microbial flora of humans' insides.

The New York Times published an article a few months back about certain brain defects associated with gut bacteria. In it, they discuss how the microbiome plays a significant role in the development of various diseases, such as obesity and autism and ways to prevent these brain defects in children.

Another article, featured on Gut Microbiota's News Watch, looked at the science of “butterflies in your stomach.” Here they asked, "If the gut and the brain send messages back and forth all the time, could we change those messages by changing the microbiota?"

What exactly establishes an individual's microbiome after birth? How influenced is it by environment? By diet? The air we breathe? The people we associate with? And what does this mean for how we give birth and what we feed our babies?

Though we still don't know everything about the development and influence gut bacteria has on the body—or how we could manipulate it to suit our needs—it's an exciting area of research, and one babies can provide lots of clues to, by way of 8 to 12 changes a day.

"Big picture: these results suggest you may be able to guide the development of the microbiome to optimize cognitive development or reduce the risk for disorders like autism which can include problems with cognition and language," Knickmeyer said. "How you guide that development is an open question because we have to understand what the individual's microbiome is and how to shift it. And this is something the scientific community is just beginning to work on."

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