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Stress matters: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial on the effects of a multispecies probiotic on neurocognition

By Silvia Papalini, Franziska Michels, Nils Kohn, Joost Wegman, Saskia van Hemert, Karin Roelofs, Alejandro Arias Vasquez, Esther Aarts

Posted 13 Feb 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/263673

Probiotics are microorganisms that can provide health benefits when consumed. Recent animal studies have demonstrated that probiotics can reverse gut microbiome-related alterations in anxiety and depression-like symptoms, in hormonal responses to stress, and in cognition. However, in humans, the effects of probiotics on neurocognition remain poorly understood and a causal understanding of the gut-brain link in emotion and cognition is lacking. We aimed to fill this gap by studying the effects of a probiotics intervention versus placebo on neurocognition in healthy human volunteers. We set out to investigate the effects of a multispecies probiotic (EcologicBarrier) on specific neurocognitive measures of emotion reactivity, emotion regulation, and cognitive control using fMRI. Critically, we also tested whether the use of probiotics can buffer against the detrimental effects of acute stress on working memory. In a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, between-subjects intervention study, 58 healthy participants were tested twice, once before and once after 28 days of intervention with probiotics or placebo. Probiotics versus placebo did not affect emotion reactivity, emotion regulation, and cognitive control processes at brain or behavioral level, neither related self-report measures. However, relative to the placebo group, the probiotics group did show a significant stress-related increase in working memory performance after versus before supplementation (digit span backward, p=0.039, ╬Ěp2=.07). Interestingly, this change was associated with intervention-related neural changes in frontal cortex during cognitive control in the probiotics group, but not in the placebo group. Overall, our results show that neurocognitive effects of supplementation with a multispecies probiotic in healthy women become visible under challenging (stress) situations. Probiotics buffered against the detrimental effects of stress in terms of cognition, especially in those individuals with probiotics-induced changes in frontal brain regions during cognitive control.

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