Without an immune system, humans would be at the mercy of every microbe they encounter — but when this system malfunctions, the resulting inflammation can be anything from an annoyance to downright debilitating.
Growing evidence also shows that it is not only our physical health at risk when the immune system goes off the rails: our mental health is affected, too.
Depression and anxiety are the two mental health issues most commonly mentioned when drawing the link between body and mind, but according to University of Wisconsin-Madison psychiatrist Chuck Raison, inflammation is “a common denominator and likely risk factor for every manner of psychiatric disturbance, from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorder, from mania to depression.”
Behavioral neuro-endocrinologist Christopher Lowry, at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes an immunization against inflammation-caused mental health disturbances could be possible in the future.
His team has “shown in animal models that a particular soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae (or M. vaccae), can reduce inflammation and the troubling behavioral symptoms that come with it.”
In one study, the researchers found that mice injected with M. vaccae behaved less anxiously when placed with an aggressive male and “were less likely to develop inflammatory issues like colitis.”
More recently, Lowry and his team found that animals given the bacteria had faster fear extinction, meaning they were able to move past “something they had been conditioned to be afraid of more quickly.”
Earlier this year, Lowry and others found that M. vaccae has a single molecule — a lipid — that mammals are unable to make but has anti-inflammatory effects in human and mouse cells.
Though Lowry has not yet received a greenlight from the FDA to do trials involving M. vaccae in humans, he is currently doing a clinical trial with humans “using another commercially available probiotic that has been shown to have immuno-regulatory effects.”