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Citizen Science

At a time when Americans, along with citizens from many countries around the world, are increasingly disillusioned with the broken top-down model of leadership—be it in politics, economics, or science—it’s exciting to see opportunities popping up for bottom-up, citizen-driven models for change. Individuals are making things happen in politics (as in the Facebook-driven “Arab Spring” revolution); in economics (the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation; children helping children in the WE DAY movement, etc); and in science (Citizen Science Alliance, SciStarter, and even DIY blogs such as Instructables).

It is with this in mind that I write to tell you about a fantastic opportunity I saw yesterday to be a part of a citizen-powered project that will shed a lot more light on human diseases of all kinds—including, I believe, Alzheimer’s. It’s called The American Gut Project.

The primary goal of this project is to map the microbiome of as many individuals as possible and at the same time gather data on lifestyle habits, diet and diseases. The ongoing and ultimate goal is to examine patterns, draw comparisons, and hopefully make connections between diet, lifestyle and diseases, so that prevention and cures can be found for specific gut patterns.

As an American with two parents that suffered early dementia, I’m especially interested in this project because of the known gut-brain axis and the fact that our Western diet, stressful living, and medicine (particularly the overuse of antibiotics) have contributed to a decimation of beneficial flora in our intestines that may be contributing to our mental illnesses. As I pointed out in an earlier post (Does Alzheimer’s Take Guts),

it’s no wonder Alzheimer’s is more prevalent in developed countries. We’ve eliminated diseases connected with harmful bacteria—we pasteurize milk, inject meat with antibiotics (even before disease is present), add chlorine to our drinking water, take antibiotics at the slightest sneeze, and never replace the good bacteria that are killed off in the process. Our digestive tracts—our first line of defense against pathogens and our main metabolic organ—get depleted of the very diversity of flora that makes us develop and function normally.

There is a lot more to learn about the gut, the brain, and the connection between them. You can listen to an interesting podcast about the gut-brain axis by clicking on the link. Here’s a fun quote from the transcript:

90% of our brain’s output goes into something called the pontomedullary area, it’s the lower two-thirds of the brain stem, and that goes into the vagus, or the pneumogastric nerve, which innervates the digestive tract. Now one of the earliest signs of the brain not firing well is poor vagal activity, which will manifest as decreased pancreatic enzyme secretion, poor gallbladder function, and poor gut function overall. And it basically works like this, you have decreased activity in the brain … and that decreases the activation of the vagal motor nuclei, which in turns suppresses the intestinal immune system and decreases intestinal blood flow. And when that happens you get an increased growth in pathogenic yeast and bacteria, that cause intestinal permeability or leaky gut … and leaky gut causes a state of chronic low grade inflammation. Then the inflammatory cytokines produced in the gut travel through the blood and they cross the blood-brain barrier. […] So your brain gets inflamed, you get a leaky brain and then you get inflamed brain. …one of the problems is that unlike the rest of the immune system in the body that has T-regulatory cells that can turn off inflammation in the brain, the microglial cells don’t get turned off. […] So, you’ve got an inflamed brain and the inflammation in the brain decreases nerve conductance and that in turn causes depression and reduced activity of the vagal motor nuclei, and of course then we’re back where we started.

By participating in the American Gut Project, we can not only get a copy of our own bacteria genome sequencing at a very affordable price, but add exponentially to the knowledge base on the human gut to push advances in preventive measures and cures up by years or even decades. I would especially urge those with either a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or a family history of dementia to get your gut sequenced and add to our understanding of the gut-brain axis.

Details of the American Gut Project are available in their press release. You can join this citizen-powered project on Indiegogo. This project is not a stand-alone, but builds on the five-year, $173-million NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project, and will continue to gather data for decades on humans and pets from around the world, building and integrating models of diverse guts to reach a clearer understanding of our bodies and how they are affected by genetics and the world around us.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to participate in this citizen-driven scientific exploration!