Universiteit Leiden

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Grant for research into stress-related disorders

Disruption to the gut flora can affect your mental health. How could this knowledge be used to prevent stress-related disorders? This is what psychologist Laura Steenbergen will investigate with the aid of a project grant from the Leiden University Fund (LUF) and the Gratama Foundation.

All disease begins in the gut. This is what Greek physician Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago. The gut also figures in the language we use to express our feelings: gut feeling, butterflies in your stomach, unable to stomach something, to name but a few examples. People therefore suspected that there is a connection between the gut and our health long before scientists began to pay this more attention in 2004. Japanese researchers discovered that mice without gut flora – gut bacteria populations – exhibit a much stronger response to stress, but that this response could be reversed with probiotics, good bacteria.

Laura Steenbergen researches the development of stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression. Research into these disorders usually comprises questionnaires or behavioural tasks. ‘In a behavioural task you have to, for example, memorise telephone numbers while looking at very unpleasant or neutral images,’ she explains. ‘This enables us to measure the extent to which the memory is influenced by looking at emotional images. Or we use questionnaires to measure the extent to which you are affected by brooding thoughts and what these thoughts comprise.’

Psychologist Laura Steenbergen will combine methods from different fields in this research.

Therapeutic bacteria

The connection between the gut and the brain has potential for the research field of anxiety and depression. ‘In previous research, I showed how probiotics can reduce people’s tendency to worry. Perhaps the gut flora could be used to prevent stress-related disorders. But if we want to know which probiotics are most promising, we have to know the exact link between disrupted gut flora and responses to emotional events. That link may be influenced by the immune system and the production of proinflammatory molecules in particular. One way that gut flora communicates with the brain is via these molecules.’

What is new about this research is that it combines analysis of the immune system and gut flora with methods from psychological research. ‘If you want to promote mental health, you will only achieve progress with truly interdisciplinary insights. That’s what I believe. Until the individual academic disciplines venture beyond their comfortable islands of expertise, we will be left with many unanswered questions. Until we start seeing the similarities between our questions and observations, we will never find truly progressive answers.’

Stronger together

This interdisciplinarity means that Steenbergen is not conducting this research alone. ‘Many research grants are based on expertise and aimed at deepening knowledge instead of integrating existing knowledge. And grants are often personal in the sense that the expertise of the person receiving the grant must prevail. This is not the case with a LUF grant. I am not creating anything new but am using methods that have existed for longer. The difference is that I’m going to integrate them. And it is not one person who is going to do all this. We have created a network of expertise that will make new insights possible.’

This network consists of two other institutions. Leiden University Medical Center will provide expertise about and measure the activity of the immune system, and My Microzoo, a company that specialises in analysing gut flora in faecal samples, will offer its expertise. In collaboration with these two partners, Steenbergen hopes to map the relationships between disruptions to the gut flora, the immune system and responses to emotional events.

Online research

Sadly, this research has also been affected by the current circumstances: ‘Due to the corona crisis the research has come to a grinding halt. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise that the protocol had not been completely finalised. I can now make sure that as much of the research as possible is conducted without physical contact. I’m looking at how feasible it is for people to take and send off their own saliva and faeces samples as well as to complete our questionnaires and complete the behavioural tasks online. On the other hand, we are measuring responses to stress and this is a very stressful time for most people. That could skew the results of the research. That’s why I think it is good to give people a bit more time to ‘acclimatise’ to this new form of society before I ask them to participate in the research.’

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