Gastrointestinal and mental disorders are highly comorbid, and animal models have shown that both can be caused by early adversity (e.g. parental deprivation). Interactions between the brain and bacteria that live within the gastrointestinal system (the microbiome) underlie adversity-gastrointestinal-anxiety interactions, but these links have not been investigated during human development.
In this study, we utilized data from a population of 344 youth (3-18 years old) who were raised with their biological parents or were exposed to early adverse caregiving experiences (i.e., institutional or foster care followed by international adoption) to explore adversity-gastrointestinal-anxiety associations.
In Study 1, we demonstrated that previous adverse care experiences were associated with increased incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms in youth. Gastrointestinal symptoms were also associated with concurrent and future anxiety (measured across 5 years), and those gastrointestinal symptoms mediated the adversity-anxiety association at Time 1.
In a subsample of children who provided both stool samples and functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (Study 2, which was a "proof-of-principle"), adversity was associated with changes in diversity (both alpha and beta) of microbial communities, and bacteria levels (adversity-associated and adversity-independent) were correlated with prefrontal cortex activation to emotional faces.
Implications of these data for supporting youth mental health are discussed.
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