The role of the gut microbiota in the function and integrity of brain barriers

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Knox, Emily G.
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University College Cork
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The barriers of the brain help maintain an optimal environment for central nervous system (CNS) function and homeostasis. There are many instances such as during age related disorders and neuropsychiatric disorders in which these barriers are under threat. Importantly, the gut-microbiota can interact with the brain barriers, thereby altering barrier physiology and communication with the brain. This bidirectional communication is known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Modulation of the gut microbiota can thereby alter functions in the brain, potentially through influence of the brain barriers. In this thesis we focus on the interface of both brain barriers; the blood-cerebrospinal fluid barrier (CSF) and blood-brain barrier (BBB) in microbiota-gut-brain axis communication. In particular, using germ-free mice which lack a gut microbiota, we investigated the contributing role of the gut microbiota in regulation of the blood-CSF barrier. Following confocal microscopy for visualization of the tight junction protein, ZO-1, germ-free mice were found to have a disruption of the tight junction protein networks in isolated choroid plexus tissue. Similar assessment of the choroid plexus capillaries revealed no difference between germ-free and conventional mice. Since microbial metabolites are some of the known contributing factors of the gut microbiota’s manipulation of the barriers, we next investigated the effects of physiological concentrations of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), butyrate and propionate, with and without induced barrier dysfunction (LPS) on the actin cytoskeleton and tight junction protein dynamics using an in vitro BBB model. We found that the butyrate and propionate altered filamentous actin directionality, increased tight junction protein spikes, and protected from LPS induced decrease in mitochondrial footprint and barrier integrity measured by trans-endothelial electrical resistance (TEER). While we do not yet understand the dynamics of the BBB following acute stress, we know that microbial metabolites can interact with BBB function, so we next assessed the potential for acute-stress induced metabolites to regulate BBB integrity using the same in vitro model. Following TEER assessment of a broad range of concentrations, we found that microbial metabolites from different classes; SCFAs, bile acids, and tryptophan metabolites impact BBB integrity. Specifically, butyrate, propionate, acetate, 3β-hydroxy-5-cholenic acid, and tryptamine exerted protective effects while acetate and cholic acid exerted detrimental effects at various concentrations. Lastly, since diet is a major modulator of the gut microbiota and especially in infancy, we assessed the impact of infant formulations fermented with probiotic strains of Bifidobacterium uniquely isolated from infant stool samples for potential effects on BBB integrity. Cell-free supernatants from the fermentation process which would contain a pool of microbial metabolites were then collected and exposed to the same in vitro model for assessment of barrier integrity with and without LPS disruption. We found that in each of the four infant formulations, there was protection from LPS disruption following fermentation with some of the Bifidobacterium strains. Overall, these results provide valuable insight into the interphase of brain barriers in microbiota-gut-brain axis communication. We highlight the role of another brain barrier in this interface, the blood-CSF barrier and further elucidate the microbial metabolite interaction in BBB physiology. Further, using two of the major modulators of the gut microbiota, stress and diet, we reveal that there is scope for the impacted metabolites or metabolic pools to influence brain barrier interactions.
Blood brain barrier , Gut microbiota , Microbial metabolites , Blood CSF barrier , Choroid plexus
Knox, E. G. 2023. The role of the gut microbiota in the function and integrity of brain barriers. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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