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Published by norazilakhalid, 2020-12-02 02:44:23

2020-11-01 Discover

2020-11-01 Discover

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SCIENCE THAT MATTERS Cybercrime’s secret origins p.54

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NOVEMBER 2020

SOLVING THE BONUS

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CODE p.3
» Probiotics, bacteria and
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» Autism’s puzzling link p.30

FARMING WITH FALCONS p.60
QUEST FOR A
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CONTENTS NOVEMBER 2020 Website access code:
DSD2011
VOL. 41, ISSUE 7
Enter this code at: www.
DiscoverMagazine.com/code

to gain access to exclusive
subscriber content.

Feral chickens
rule the roost,
but what’s the
science behind
them?

COVER: LIGHTSPRING/SHUTTERSTOCK. THIS PAGE: M1 INTERACTIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK 22 The Quest for a 40 Gut Feeling

Quantum Internet Mounting evidence shows bugs in your
digestive system influence the brain.
Here’s what the entangled wackiness Experts are now testing psychobiotics
of an ultra-secure web might look like. as mental health remedies.

DAN HURLEY ELIZABETH SVOBODA

30 Bacteria and the Brain 48 Where the Wild

Researchers are finding clues to autistic Things Crow
behavior — in patients’ microbiomes.
There’s a man who loves chickens —
ADAM PIORE almost as much as he loves science.
He’s probing the depths of evolutionary
biology, genetics and the unexpected
benefits of feral birds.

JOAN MEINERS

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 3

CONTENTS

p. 10 p. 66

COLUMNS & DEPARTMENTS

6 EDITOR’S NOTE 18 VITAL SIGNS from field pests and CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: ROLAND IJDEMA/SHUTTERSTOCK; JARMO PIIRONEN/SHUTTERSTOCK; ARDA SAVASCIOGULLARI/SHUTTERSTOCK
foodborne pathogens.
We’re Exploring Beyond the Blues
That Gut Feeling JEFF KRONENFELD
“Everything was fine”
The science behind the for this salesman, but he 66 20 THINGS YOU DIDN’T
phrase, “You are what couldn’t shake his funk. His
you eat.” hormones may have had KNOW ABOUT ...
something to do with it.
7 INBOX Wilderness
DOUGLAS G. ADLER
Our readers chime in The great outdoors is good
about the awesome and 54 HISTORY LESSONS for our overall health, but
the not-so-awesome. this precious resource is
Cracking the 414s in danger.
HOT SCIENCE P. 9
In 1983, a group of young JONATHON KEATS
Saving the mangrove tree and adults from Milwaukee
the white-cheeked gibbon, the became famous for hacking p. 54
first image from Solar Orbiter’s into several high-profile
mission, meat’s role in humans’ computer systems,
diets, the best science books to introducing the country to
read now and much more. the world of cybercrime.

ALEX ORLANDO

60 PLANET EARTH

Farming With
Falcons

Trained raptors are
protecting our produce

4 DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM

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EDITOR’S NOTE

BY BECKY LANG ®

We’re Exploring That MAGAZINE
Gut Feeling
BECKY LANG Editor In Chief
You are what you eat. How many of us have heard this phrase, rolled ELIZABETH M. WEBER Design Director
our eyes, said “yeah, yeah,” and moved on? Yet it’s a beautifully simple
saying that cuts straight to the point: What you put into your body EDITORIAL
has a direct effect on your overall health.
I was curious about the origin of the saying, which we’ve heard in the U.S. for TIMOTHY MEINCH Features Editor
much of the 20th century. The idiom’s original version first appeared in 1825 in ELISA R. NECKAR Production Editor
a famed French book about food, by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. He was a ANNA FUNK Associate Editor
lawyer and judge, as well as a celebrated food writer. His original line, translated ALEX ORLANDO Assistant Editor
into English: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” JENNIFER WALTER Assistant Editor
MCLEAN BENNETT Copy Editor
At that time, Brillat-Savarin was com- HAILEY MCLAUGHLIN Editorial Assistant
menting on the connection between food, ALLISON WHITTEN AAAS Mass Media Fellow
society and culture — how intertwined
food is in our sense of identity. Since then, Contributing Editors
we’ve managed to boil that down (ha) to a
clear connection between a diet of whole BRIDGET ALEX, TIM FOLGER,
food and general health. In other words, JONATHON KEATS, LINDA MARSA,
put junk in your body, and expect not-so- KENNETH MILLER, STEVE NADIS,
great things to happen. JULIE REHMEYER,
DARLENE CAVALIER (special projects)
But our health goes far beyond just
food. As you’ll read in this issue’s cover DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
stories, researchers are discovering
just how much power is wielded by the MEGAN SCHMIDT Digital Content Coordinator
trillions of bacteria that populate our
guts. Scientists have found that particular Contributors
strains of bacteria in our intestines —
those that are part of the gut microbiome BRIDGET ALEX, ERIC BETZ, ERIK KLEMETTI,
— can shape how we think, how we feel and how our brains operate. LESLIE NEMO, NEUROSKEPTIC,
We’re finding more evidence that this gut-brain axis can affect mental health, COREY S. POWELL, SCISTARTER, TOM YULSMAN
such as depression and anxiety. The microbiome also may be linked to symp-
toms of autism. And preliminary studies show that replacing the microbiome ADVERTISING
with specific bacterial strains affects an animal’s behavior.
So perhaps we could tweak that original phrase: Tell me what’s in your gut and SCOTT REDMOND Advertising Sales Director
I will tell you how you feel.
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6 DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM

INBOX

SPECIAL BONUS CONTENT FROM ASTRONOMY MAGAZINE

OUT THERE

AWESOME AoOfUGnaivlaexriseesTsbhouttmehaeTitglotelhtefdeEuahoeinslai1Mogsirsehnbdsenhne0caHeun1rstccajghwciooot0se1a0cgearliavupmseuliaecs-pprocu9nipi0os,eneni.hHolantpbpei2tnanpttosud:rnTdgorir.u0olbetlicihntss,tddyOgourshHencrsithhpbeiogmzynWshler,dolcettenholtueetHsdtroHheiboyhkoiwoncuetenoLenbsiitimtiesfooaaegatsdnrcluhoadnreoenebe,strsuioroaaelnptwnbexrbrhgcshortcloioiaotkskdewezvhslgobtiulieccpAenoueavfsseeeaiefvlhahanlutthprnsfettra;wesnathtnaeeotaa.lhcigdilisphiigiTctdshcveoag,sbguhrcaniatrheheeenhsea.taehnebhiwxtsetnaticipel.klt.nolltlramuae:idtiadeAyecaSleietyat,“ntTtisantsrhnMysr.unnoncvaeasnhwt,toh.elefaiHaoeedisgjeaisosideovndeoTsoottmlss.nopbudmvteiauryuetiouhuynHplbbledusgeoeseaaoerarfenaelp,olhstcrnrnolmcueduentahndb,aeekotdOveorl.hsesbthnrestyddecbeapeeoieWtdoIvt.-tb.u,cdegt”ngodecnseehswyearHtlustachrogasdaieTee.dthethciealoonto,prsuinocnsha4ettiatehwmsntamMrfonowiubhdr,pgreampenynoktarnom,brses1ahte3dhavponasnatmeetunel.er9h1eealshksmtleloaeadeTreoitafm2tk,a.oeadtdemwxrehtgrmthabt3otThdyttldeuconeyeh,ntyhoeMeH,,naaihionensenohsledtrordnrigaeaitsrdeydoetdvhioe3sfeiuxnertesidze—oga,daaaoerica1gmpssaadesvaoythriuirseepkablhrloidmnoyasotkoessdenntibeynuegrtrofdriaoarddeafroiaonsatiltistfgeehhclflniett-,trneeeeoaeghbdr,dnteuo-t OUT THERE 63
CONNECTIONS SPECIAL BONUS CONTENT FROM ASTRONOMY MAGAZINE
62 NWeeiglchobmoerhtoootdheTheMilky
(“Awe-Struck,” “A Universe of
Galaxies” and “Welcome to the collection
Neighborhood,” June 2020) oWf aayfeawnddAoznednrogmaeladxaiersu. le over a motley

The June 2020 issue’s juxtaposition of “Awe-

Struck” with the two articles on galaxies is A

an amazing example, intentional or not, of 70

one article demonstrating the unrelated 71

one before it. You can’t get more awe-inspiring

than the universe, and this section on galaxies did a beautiful job of

presenting galaxies in a way that puts a lot of stuff into perspective. As

I read the articles, I kept thinking back to our small place in all of that.

— Joel Amromin, Chatsworth, Calif.

MINING RIGHTS resources and then go as a percentage of the
on to deplete off-planet global population at the
(“Out of Our Mines,” resources. — Elizabeth time of the pandemic,
June 2020) Rumley James, because this is the
Marshfield, Mo. figure that allows the
I love Discover! However, reader to understand
I was disturbed by the CONTEXT, PLEASE the true impact that
article “Out of Our the pandemic had on
Mines.” While I am all (“History of Pandemics,” society. Fifty million
for reclaiming those June 2020) deaths today (less
essential elements from than 1 percent of the
tailings, waste dumps, Your infographic in world’s population) is
ocean water, et cetera, The Crux summarized very different than 50
I am unhappy with various pandemics million deaths 100
the implied attitude across the ages — great years ago (2.7 percent
that mining the moon, article, with wonderful of the population) or
asteroids and the deep graphics to convey the 50 million deaths
sea bottom are all information clearly. But in 1340 (12 percent).
acceptable in the name the death counts were — Carlin Otto,
of progress. It seems given in numbers; this Palo Alto, Calif.
especially wrong to me information would be
to use up all Earth’s even more useful if given

CORRECTIONS TIGERBALM.COM

• In our May 2020 story “It’s Not That Easy Being Green,” readers were urged to NEW!

keep plastic bags, which can clog machinery, out of single-stream recycling bins. A .
few readers reached out to inform us that some locales do accept plastic bags for
recycling, usually when bagged together. As always, check your local regulations
to be sure you’re recycling everything you can — and nothing more.

• In “When the Fever Doesn’t Break,” from the July/August 2020 issue, we

indicated that Takeda’s new dengue vaccine, TAK-003, was based on an existing
yellow fever vaccine. This is incorrect; TAK-003 is built on a dengue serotype that’s
common to all four serotypes.

Deadly S.N.A.F.U.,

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From the acclaimed investigative author who brought you the non-fiction
Railroad Collisions, A Deadly Story of Mismanaged Risk, George Swimmer returns
with a systematic playbook of understanding the exposure to water contamination faced
by about one million Marines, Sailors, their dependents and others who were stationed,
lived or worked at Camp Lejeune. As a Marine veteran, Swimmer’s evident passion for
and knowledge about the subject shine through. He does an excellent job of making
military reports and unfamiliar terms understandable of novices.
A thoroughly researched investigative journey, Swimmer’s non-fiction Deadly S.N.A.F.U., Marine Corp Base
Camp Lejeune, N.C. spells out the irrefutable scientific and medical evidence that connects the dots between
the decades-long exposure to water contaminants during military service at Camp Lejeune and the development
of certain diseases later on.
This is an impassioned indictment of the United States Marine Corps for its decades of mismanagement that
caused extreme quantities of toxic pollutants to enter the potable water supply, then followed by years of lies,
coverups, combined with an inept and infective notification process experienced by 100,000’s of Marines and
others. Yet, Swimmer prevails as he focuses on the human spirit that connects all Marines. Semper Fi!

Amazon.com/author/georgeswimmer

Paperback $14.99, Kindle eBook $3.99

HOT SCIENCE

THE L ATEST NEWS AND NOTES

GIBBON GUARDIANS • SEEING SUNSPOTS • WANDERING STARS •
MEAT-EATERS • BOOK REVIEWS

MAN VS. MANGROVES

These trees love beachfront views. Mangroves live in the salty shallow waters between land and sea
across thousands of miles of the world’s coastlines — at least, for now. High carbon emissions are causing
sea levels to rise, and soon mangroves won’t be able to stay above water. Earlier this year, researchers
estimated that once the annual rate of sea level rise reaches just a quarter of an inch, mangroves will begin
to drown. Without changes to emissions, these forests of the ocean will be in grave danger by 2050. And if
they lose their homes, they may not be the only ones. The tropical trees protect coastal land and the people
who live there from natural disasters like tsunamis, by reducing storm surges and flooding. — ALLISON

WHITTEN; IMAGE BY DAMSEA/SHUTTERSTOCK

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 9

HOT SCIENCE

DESPITE THREATS
FROM POACHERS,
A CRITICALLY
ENDANGERED
SPECIES OF
GIBBON RECENTLY
DOUBLED ITS
NUMBERS.

SPECIES WATCH

White-Cheeked Gibbon

BARELY 10 gibbon’s holdout. Just 127 ani- count the primates by Poachers are still active in ROLAND IJDEMA/SHUTTERSTOCK
YEARS AGO, mals remained in 2011 in one listening for their calls; since the area, motivated by the
of the country’s last strong- they’re territorial and rarely ongoing market for food,
the plight of holds for the species — Xuan move out of their home traditional medicines and
the northern Lien Nature Reserve and the turf, La says, it’s a highly illegal pets. During a field
white-cheeked gibbon looked adjacent forests — according accurate way to estimate trip in December, the team
dire. The gibbon’s territory to La Quang Trung, a primate their numbers. came across five illegal
had once spanned old-growth expert with the Center for wildlife-hunting camps where
rainforests across China, Laos Nature Conservation and The researchers attribute the poachers were selling
and Vietnam, but decades Development in Hanoi. this dramatic increase to their catch to restaurants.
of habitat loss and hunting the efforts of local villagers: Forest rangers who had
had left only a few dozen But things might be Xuan Lien hired people living accompanied the researchers
isolated communities. By turning around for the around the reserve to patrol chased away the poachers
2013, the gibbon was declared gibbon. Since last year, La and the forest for poachers and and razed their camps, but
effectively extinct in China — his team have been revisiting to educate their neighbors it was a stark reminder that
and today, no one knows how Xuan Lien and the surround- on the importance of gibbon the gibbons’ future relies on
many are left in Laos. ing areas and have found that conservation. their continued protection.
A few secluded reserves in gibbon numbers have almost
Vietnam now appear to be the doubled. The researchers However, not all the news — TROY KIPPEN
from Xuan Lien is good.

10 DISCOVERMAG A ZINE .COM

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HOT SCIENCE

SNAPSHOT

SEEING SUNSPOTS

Spurts of hot gas (seen in bright yellow, above) highlight the sun’s active areas — basically, the parts with
particularly strong magnetic fields. Photographed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, these areas
of magnetic activity are involved in the emission of solar wind, streams of charged particles flowing from
the sun, as well as more extreme plasma bursts called coronal mass ejections. When these particles, sent
into space at speeds up to 1,800 miles per second, collide with Earth’s atmosphere, they can manifest as
the dazzling aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. — ALEX ORLANDO; IMAGE BY NASA SOLAR

DYNAMICS OBSERVATORY/AIA

12 DISCOVERMAG A ZINE .COM

1D3i8sc-Yoveearre-Od!ldUMnoopregnaendSBilavgeroDf ollars1U3n8oYpeeanres!d for

Coin experts amazed by 3 Historic Morgan Silver Dollars
3 Minted in New Orleans
“Incredible Opportunity” 3 Struck and bagged in 1882
3 Unopened for 138 years
The Morgan Silver Dollar is the most 3 26.73 grams of 90% fine silver
popular and iconic vintage U.S. coin. They 3 Hefty 38.1 mm diameter
were the Silver Dollars of the Wild West, 3 C ertified Brilliant Uncirculated
going on countless untold adventures in
dusty saddlebags across the nation. Finding by NGC
a secret hoard of Morgans doesn’t happen
often—and when it does, it’s a big deal. 3 C ertified “Great Southern

How big? Here’s numismatist, author Treasury Hoard” pedigree
and consultant to the Smithsonian®
Jeff Garrett: 3 Limit five coins per household

“It’s very rare to find large quantities Actual size is 38.1 mm
of Morgan Silver Dollars, especially
in bags that have been sealed... the southern gentleman by giving the coins the
to find several thousand Morgan pedigree of the “Great Southern Treasury Hoard.”
Silver Dollars that are from the U.S.
Treasury Hoards, still unopened, is These gorgeous 1882-O Morgans are as bright and new as the day
really an incredible opportunity.” they were struck and bagged 138 years ago. Coins are graded on a
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-Jeff Garrett referred to as “Brilliant Uncirculated” or BU. Of all 1882-O Morgans
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the U.S. government, the State of Louisiana and the Confederacy. old coins have, without their special NGC hoard designation,
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each featuring the iconic “O” mint mark of the New Orleans Mint. Comstock Lode all the way to your collection.
Employees then placed the freshly struck coins into canvas bags...
Given the limited quantity of coins available from this historic hoard,
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Fast-forward nearly 80 years. In the 1960s, the U.S. government
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HOT SCIENCE THE TOP STORIES FROM DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM

WEB REPORT

When astronomers
spotted Scholz’s Star
(seen at right with its
binary brown dwarf),
it was moving away
at a breathtaking
pace — and its path
showed that it had
flown right by us.

The Wandering Stars
That Pass by Our Solar System

OUR SUN HAS HAD ENCOUNTERS WITH OTHER STARS IN THE PAST, AND IT’S DUE FOR A DANGEROUSLY
CLOSE ONE IN THE NOT-SO-DISTANT FUTURE.

EVERY 50,000 years or so, Space Agency spacecraft called Gaia. Earth, well within the outer edge of the MICHAEL OSADCIW/UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER
a nomadic star passes near Gaia was built to map the precise loca- Oort Cloud.
our solar system. Most tions and movements of over a billion
brush by without incident. stars, and has alerted astronomers At two-thirds the mass of the sun,
But, every once in a while, one comes a to hundreds of close encounters past Gliese 710 is much larger than Scholz’s
bit closer to home. and future. A few of these will be close Star, which is just 15 percent the mass
The most famous of these stellar enough to actually dislodge a significant of the sun. This means Gliese 710’s
interlopers is called Scholz’s Star. This amount of debris from the Oort Cloud, hulking gravity could potentially wreak
small binary star system (two stars in potentially leading to a cosmic bom- havoc on the orbits of icy bodies in the
orbit together) was first spotted in 2013. bardment of Earth. Oort Cloud. And while Scholz’s Star
Its orbital path indicates that, about was so tiny it would have been invisible
70,000 years ago, it passed through the Most notable is the massive star to the naked eye — unless it flared —
Oort Cloud, the extended sphere of icy Gliese 710, which will steamroll Gliese 710 is larger than our current
bodies that surrounds our solar system. through the outer solar system closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri.
We now know that these kinds of 1.3 million years from now. It could So when Gliese 710 reaches its closest
encounters happen far more often than pass within 17,000 astronomical units point to Earth, it will burn as a brilliant
once expected, thanks to a European (1 AU is equal to the average Earth- orange orb that will outshine every
sun distance of 93 million miles) of other star in our night sky. — ERIC BETZ

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HOT SCIENCE

BOOKS More Pages to Turn

WHAT WE’RE Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton
READING and the Origins of Humankind

Breath From Salt: A Deadly Genetic By Kermit Pattison
Disease, a New Era in Science, To the outside observer, science — in particular, the
and the Patients and Families science of human origins — might seem like a methodical,
Who Changed Medicine Forever unbiased practice. But even the most significant findings
in the fossil record were fueled by personal and political
By Bijal P. Trivedi incentives. Journalist Pattison details the stories of the
people and places involved in expeditions that led to the discovery of
WHAT STARTED in 2012 as research Ardi, thought to be the oldest known skeleton of a human ancestor found
for a single article for Discover led to date. Equal parts biography and adventure novel, Pattison illustrates
science journalist Trivedi down a rabbit the colorful characters — flaws and all — whose research has shaped our
hole of information about the ongoing origin story as we know it today.
fight against cystic fibrosis (CF). At
the time, the FDA had approved a Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain
new drug to treat the life-threatening
condition, which fills the lungs with By Lisa Feldman Barrett
fluid and hinders the pancreas’ ability You might think you know your brain, but faulty science
to help with and popular myths have left us with a misunderstanding
digestion. of our most powerful organ. Neuroscientist Barrett takes
Roughly readers on a journey from the first earthly creatures,
80 years after through the musings of ancient philosophers, and to
scientists first present-day neuroscience. Her lens reveals how we grew
identified the to think, and debunks the fallacies — such as the famous idea of being
condition, left- or right-brained — that we’ve embraced in popular culture.
it remains
incurable. What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots:
The Future of Human-Robot Collaboration
In Breath
From Salt, By Laura Major & Julie Shah
Trivedi starts Are robots out to steal our jobs and information and make
with people human knowledge obsolete? Probably not, argue Major
— specifically, the O’Donnell family, and Shah. Rather than world domination, future bots will
who lost their 12-year-old son, Joey, to struggle to navigate the world that humans have built. They
CF. She weaves the story of the Joey will likely require our expertise to help them interact in
Fund, the O’Donnells’ nonprofit that public and become effective communicators. The two tech experts describe
has raised more than $250 million for a future where humans and machines work together to make progress, and
cystic fibrosis research, into a sensitive where an increasingly bot-aided society isn’t something to fear.
and informative account of how our
understanding of CF has transformed, Kill Shot: A Shadow Industry, a Deadly Disease
and how it still impacts families today.
By Jason Dearen
As a reader who knew very little When a string of strange fungal infections popped up in
about CF, I was gripped by Trivedi’s the brains of otherwise healthy patients in 2012, investiga-
curiosity and attention to detail. tors blow the roof off of a contamination outbreak caused
Anecdotes and explanations about by a dangerous, yet legal, pharmaceutical operation.
the condition’s medical history were Journalist Dearen documents the loopholes, the lack of
illuminating and easy to follow. And oversight from regulatory boards, and the profit-hungry
reading about the O’Donnells made characters who caused over 100 victims to succumb
me ache for their loss, and long to see to a swift and puzzling death at the hands of unknowing doctors. This
where this ongoing quest to cure CF unnerving true tale is a crowd-pleaser for fans of true crime and medical
will go next. — JENNIFER WALTER mysteries. — J.W.

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VITAL SIGNS

BY DOUGLAS G. ADLER

Beyond the Blues When as thyroxine, which has a profound effect
people don’t on a person’s overall metabolic rate.
‘EVERYTHING WAS FINE’ FOR THIS SALESMAN, BUT experience When the thyroid gland produces too
HE COULDN’T SHAKE HIS FUNK. HIS HORMONES MAY pleasure, it little thyroxine — a condition known
HAVE HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH IT. is known as as hypothyroidism — patients often
anhedonia describe a similar set of symptoms.
Reggie, a 30-year-old pharmaceutical salesman, — often a Confident that I had nailed the diag-
appeared in my office one afternoon to follow up on sign of nosis, I ordered blood tests to check
his cholesterol levels and other routine bloodwork. depression. his thyroid. A few days later, the results
While the tests were all normal, I noticed he seemed But Reggie came back, and I was stunned to see
to be in a bit of a funk, for lack of a more scientific term. insisted he they were perfectly normal. Scratching
Ordinarily an upbeat and positive person, he seemed to be didn’t feel my head, I asked Reggie to return to my
down in the dumps. When I asked if anything was going on at sad in the clinic for more tests.
home or at work, he said everything was fine. Still, he couldn’t usual sense
deny that he did not feel like himself. of the word. He told me his symptoms had not
improved. He’d had an episode of what
“It’s hard to describe,” he told me. “Everything is fine, and he called “brain fog” on an important KELLIE JAEGER/DISCOVER
I should feel fine, but I don’t. My marriage is fine, my kids conference call for work, performed
are doing well in school, and I have money in the bank.” poorly and been deeply embarrassed.
Nonetheless, Reggie told me that sometimes he got confused I asked about any other symptoms he
for no reason and he felt tired all the time. Plus, his muscles and hadn’t mentioned before. He told me
joints ached. “It all came on out of nowhere a few weeks ago that “nothing was fun anymore.” Movies
and I can’t seem to shake it,” he continued. “At first, I thought I and TV shows that he liked now bored
had the flu, but I don’t.” him, and music that he usually liked
listening to sounded grating to his ears.
I immediately thought he may have thyroid troubles. The
thyroid gland, located in the neck, produces a hormone known When people don’t experience plea-
sure, it is known as anhedonia — often
18 DISCOVERMAG A ZINE .COM a sign of depression. But Reggie insisted
he didn’t feel sad in the usual sense of
the word. “I don’t feel sad or depressed,”
he told me. “I just don’t feel anything
at all.” Lastly, in hushed tones, Reggie
said he was having trouble getting and
maintaining erections, something he had
never experienced before. “I feel like an
80-year-old man in a 30-year-old body,”
he lamented.

Changes in mood and sex drive can
sometimes suggest a neurologic problem.
But Reggie’s neurologic exam was
normal. To be safe, I ordered a CT scan
of his brain; it was also perfectly normal.
One evening, I was alone in my office
and thinking about possible side effects.
I went through his list of medications,
one by one, and saw nothing worrisome
until I noticed something: A few months
ago, Reggie had started taking finasteride.

HORMONES: HELPFUL
AND HARMFUL
Finasteride is a 5-alpha reductase
inhibitor; these types of drugs can affect
the way hormones are processed and
transformed by our bodies. The male

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VITAL SIGNS

sex hormone testosterone The fact place: If you read online that
helps men build muscle and that the a drug can help regrow hair
have a healthy sex drive, but most but can also cause impotence,
it also produces hair loss common you may be more likely to
in genetically susceptible side effects subjectively feel like you’re
individuals. Finasteride blocks from the having a sexual side effect.
the conversion of testosterone drug are
to its more potent cousin, sexual has Regardless, the symptoms
dihydrotestosterone (DHT). scared many Reggie was describing to me
High levels of DHT can cause patients off sounded like they could be
hair loss, so drugs that halt from even attributed to the adverse side
that hormone’s production can trying it effects of finasteride.
help combat it. to treat
hair loss. A TOUGH CHOICE
Finasteride was first I reviewed all of this with
marketed over 20 years Reggie at his next visit. He KELLIE JAEGER/DISCOVER
ago as a treatment for looked skeptical. I then sug-
urinary symptoms in men with enlarged prostate gested he stop taking his finasteride. He immediately
glands. Since then, the drug has also found use as a refused. “No way,” he angrily told me. “Forget about it.
treatment for male pattern baldness. Many men who Seeing all of that hair in my hands when I shampooed
are losing their hair can slow — or even reverse — each morning was the worst. It was all I could think
the process by taking a much lower dose of finaste- about for the rest of the day. I’ve lost so much hair
ride than is used to treat an enlarged prostate. in the past year, and now I’m finally starting to get
it back.”
Reggie had obtained his finasteride from an online I understood where he was coming from. I had
pharmacy after he’d noticed his hair was falling out experienced more than a little hair loss myself and
and became worried about his appearance. Since knew how upsetting it could be. Still, I was worried
taking the drug, his hair loss had largely stopped. In about him. I suggested he think on it, read about
addition, he told me that he was definitely starting to finasteride’s side effects and PFS, and see me in a
see some new hair growth — a welcome sight. week. He agreed, but he left my office that day more
upset than when he arrived.
But finasteride, while highly effective, is also a Reggie returned the following week. He had done
controversial drug. Not long after it was released a lot of research about finasteride, even going so far
commercially, some users began to complain of a as joining an online message board to discuss his
plethora of symptoms not unlike Reggie’s. Patients symptoms. “I have to admit,” he said, “a lot of those
could develop neurologic, sexual, emotional other guys on the message board sounded just like
and musculoskeletal symptoms that, strangely, me.” With a sigh, he told me he would try stopping
sometimes persisted for months or even years after his finasteride for a while.
stopping the drug. When symptoms continue even Two weeks later, Reggie came back to see me.
after stopping finasteride, patients are referred to as His mood was better, he had more energy, his aches
having post-finasteride syndrome, or PFS. had faded, and his libido was returning, though
admittedly not as quickly as he would have liked. It
The fact that the most common side effects from seemed the finasteride was the culprit. Still worried
the drug are sexual — and that these could be long- about balding, Reggie had started taking minoxidil,
lasting — has scared many patients off from even the other FDA-approved treatment for hair loss. It
trying it to treat hair loss. The medical literature on wasn’t as strong of a hair loss drug as finasteride,
finasteride is also far from clear; some studies of but at least it was something. Weighing the pros and
finasteride have documented these side effects, but cons of finasteride, he decided he had more to lose
others have not. Plus, patients who have good results by taking the drug than he stood to gain — even on
on finasteride swear by it in online hair loss forums, top of his head. D
while those who feel it has harmed them deride it
as poison on those same sites. Douglas G. Adler is a gastroenterologist and professor
at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The cases
Most men who take finasteride have no side described in Vital Signs are real, but names and certain
effects at all. And those who do develop issues details have been changed.
usually see them resolve after stopping the drug.
Still, some who take finasteride do experience long-
lasting side effects. In part, this may have something
to do with anxiety about using the drug in the first

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THE
QUEST
FOR A

BY DAN HURLEY

22 DISCOVERMAGAZINE .COM

HERE’S WHAT THE ENTANGLED
WACKINESS OF AN ULTRA-SECURE

WEB MIGHT LOOK LIKE.

objects can exist in two or more states at the same time,

called superpositions; they can interact with each other

instantly over long distances; they can flash in and out of

existence. Scientists like Figueroa want to harness that

bizarre behavior and turn it into a functioning, new-age

internet — one, they say, that will be ironclad for sending

secure messages, impervious to hacking.

Already, Figueroa says his group has transmitted what

he called “polarization states” between the Stony Brook

and Brookhaven campuses using fiber infrastructure,

adding up to 85 miles. Kerstin Kleese van Dam, director

of Brookhaven Lab’s Computational Science Initiative,

says it is “one of the largest quantum networks in the

world, and the longest in the United States.”

Next, Figueroa hopes to teleport his quantum-based

messages through the air, across Long Island Sound,

to Yale University in Connecticut. Then he wants to go

50 miles east, using existing fiber-optic cables to connect

with Long Island and

Manhattan.

Kleese Van Dam

says that although

other groups in Europe

and China have more

Laboratory, Eden Figueroa is one of the world’s pioneering gardeners funding and have been
planting the seeds of a quantum internet. Capable of sending working much longer
enormous amounts of data over vast distances, it would work not on the technology, in
the U.S. “[Figueroa] is

just faster than the current internet but faster than the speed of light leading when it comes

— instantaneously, in fact, like the teleportation of Mr. Spock and to having the knowledge
Captain Kirk in Star Trek. and the equipment
necessary to put together

a quantum network in

the next year or two.”

Sitting in Brookhaven’s light-filled cafeteria, his David Awschalom, a legend in the field who is a

shoulder-length black hair fighting to free itself from the professor of spintronics and quantum information at

clutches of a ponytail, Figueroa — a Mexico native who is the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular

an associate professor at Stony Brook University — tries Engineering and director of the Chicago Quantum

to explain how it will work. He grabs hold of two plastic Exchange, calls Figueroa’s work “a fantastic project being

coffee cup lids, a saltshaker, a pepper shaker and a small done very thoughtfully and very well. I’m always cautious

cup of water, and begins moving them around on the about saying something is the biggest or fastest,” he says.

lunch table like a magician with cards. “It’s a worldwide effort right now in building prototype

“I’m going to have a detector here and a detector here,” quantum networks as the next step toward building

he says, pointing to the two lids. “Now there are many a quantum internet.” Other efforts to build quantum PREVIOUS SPREAD: JURIK PETER/SHUTTERSTOCK

possibilities. Either those two go in here” — he points to networks, he says, are underway in Japan, the U.K., the

the saltshaker — “or the two go in there,” nodding at the Netherlands and China — not to mention his own group’s

cup of water. “And then depending on what happened project in Chicago.

there, that will be the state,” he says, holding up the black U.S. efforts have lately been given a boost by the U.S.

pepper shaker, “that I’m preparing here.” Department of Energy’s announcement in January that it

Got that? Me neither. But don’t worry. Only a few hun- would spend as much as $625 million to fund two to five

dred or so physicists in the U.S., Europe and China really quantum research centers. The move is part of the U.S.

comprehend how to exploit some of the weirdest, most National Quantum Initiative signed into law by President

far-out aspects of quantum physics. In this strange arena, Donald Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.

24 D ISCOVERMAG A Z I N E .CO M

Eden Figueroa (right) has worked for several years on technology that would extend the distance that quantum particles can travel and still be
entangled. Here Figueroa and researchers Mehdi Namazi (left) and Mael Flament (center), part of his team at Stony Brook University back in 2018,
stand behind one prototype of technology that’s impervious to hacking.

But what, really, is this thing called a quantum internet? experiment, it was first performed more than 200 years
How does it work? Figueroa, enraptured by his vision,
told me of his plan with contagious enthusiasm, laughing ago by British polymath Thomas Young.
sometimes as if it were all so simple that a child (or even
an English major) could understand it. Not wanting to When shining a beam of light at a flat panel of material
disappoint, I nodded my head and pretended that I knew
what the hell he was talking about. cut with two slits side-by-side, Young saw that the light

And, after spending two days with Figueroa last sum- passing through the slits created an interference pattern
mer, following him around the campus of Brookhaven
and the nearby Stony Brook, getting a firsthand look at his of dark and bright bands on a screen behind the panel.
futuristic equipment, talking with other physicists around
the world, reading a few books and perusing dozens of Only waves — light waves — emanating from the two
articles and studies, I began to kind of, sort of, get it. Not
in all its unsettling depths, but in the general way that slits could make such a pattern. Young “CURIOUSLY,
I understand how an internal-combustion engine goes concluded that Isaac Newton, who
vroom or why a toilet bowl flushes. And you can, too. published a particle theory of light in ALL THE
1704, was wrong. Light came in waves,
UNTANGLING ENTANGLEMENT not in particles.
Leading me to the back room of his laboratory at Stony
Brook, where he heads the quantum information But by the early 20th century, scientists IMPLICATIONS
technology group, Figueroa shows me a large table OF THE
covered with a labyrinth of tiny mirrors, lasers and had confirmed that light also came in
electronics. “This is where we create these photons that
carry superpositions,” he says, “that then we can send particles — what physicist Gilbert N. QUANTUM
into the fiber. OK? It’s very simple.”
STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY Lewis called photons, or quanta. And INTERNET CAN
Right. incredibly, researchers found that even BE TRACED
Curiously, all the implications of the quantum internet when single photons of light were sent fly- BACK TO AN
can be traced back to an experiment so straightforward ing one at a time at the double-slit panel, EXPERIMENT
you can do it in your living room. Called the double slit the interference pattern still appeared on SO STRAIGHT-
the other side. Each particle, they realized, FORWARD YOU
was also a wave, spread out like a schmear CAN DO IT IN
of cream cheese, and so traversed both YOUR LIVING
slits simultaneously, thereby interfering ROOM.
with ... itself on the other side.

Think on that. A single particle of light

was in two places at once. That meant tickling a particle

in one place should make it giggle in the other. Observing

it in one place should reveal something about its twin.

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 25

Erwin Schrödinger called the phenomenon entanglement breaks each one into a pair of lower-energy red photons;
— the very thing that Figueroa and other researchers are each of the two resulting red photons is now entangled
harnessing now to send information. Simply put, adding with the other. Figueroa points out the path the photons
information, such as a message or data, to a particle in one take from mirror to mirror. “They do boop, boop, boop,
location will make the data appear at the other location: boop, boop-boop-boop-boop. This is why we have this
the essence of teleportation. beautiful system. This is working, actually. This is beauti-
ful,” he says.
But how, I ask Figueroa, do all these wild ideas work in
practice, with nuts and bolts and physical devices? Once entangled, one red photon is sent a short distance
to a detector in Figueroa’s lab down the hall, while the
“Let me show you where the magic happens,” he says. other can be sent a dozen miles away to a detector at the
Brookhaven National Lab. The differing distances would
THANKS FOR THE QUANTUM MEMORIES cause the two photons’ arrival times to fall slightly out of
“It’s just equipment and optics,” he tells me, pointing to sync, which would disrupt their entanglement. To prevent
an array of lasers and mirrors configured on a large table. that, Figueroa had to find a way to coordinate the arrival
“This is what people call Lego for adults.” On one end, a times of each down to the sub-nanosecond.
laser aims high-energy blue photons at a crystal, which
But how? Other quantum labs freeze their stay-at-home
photons to near-absolute zero as a way of tapping the
brakes. Figueroa’s innovation, by contrast, works at room
temperature: an inch-long glass tube containing a fog of
trillions of rubidium atoms. That first morning when I
visit Figueroa’s lab, he puts one of these tubes in my hand.

“What is it?” I ask him.
He smiles and says, “A quantum memory.”
Back when he was pursuing his doctorate at the
University of Konstanz in Germany, Figueroa tells me,
he had asked his professor if it would be possible to build
a system that would work at room temperature without
costly, complex freezers.
“I don’t think so,” he was told. “But prove me wrong.”
So, he did. By bouncing photons off a series of carefully
placed mirrors and bombarding a mist of rubidium
atoms with a network of lasers, Figueroa discovered that
he could tune the wavelengths of entangled photons to
broadcast a signal that electrons in the rubidium fog
could receive. Voila! The entangled state of the photon is
transferred, momentarily, into the entire cloud of atoms.
A fraction of a nanosecond later, the entangled photon
moves on, arriving at the detector at the same moment as
its twin.
Incredibly, since completing his doctorate in 2012,

A DIY QUANTUM INTERNET IN 3 EASY STEPS

STEP 1To build a into two lower-energy red Brad or Angelina? Until sending information from one SAKKMESTERKE/SHUTTERSTOCK
quantum photons. Now those photons Spielberg looks through his to the other.
internet, you begin by are permanently entangled. peephole to see who’s on
entangling two photons so Kind of like Brad Pitt and the other side of the door, STEP 2 To send a
they behave like a single unit, Angelina Jolie, entangled till you both have a random, meaningful
no matter how far they might the end of time as Brangelina. 50-50 chance of seeing one message from Brad to
be separated. Easy peasy. To Now go ahead and send one or the other. In the quantum Angelina, you need a third
do this, take one high-energy of those photons to your pal, world, everything exists in a photon. Let’s call this one
blue photon, generated by Steven Spielberg, and keep statistical blur. But that’s OK, Jennifer Aniston. Put Jennifer
a laser, and put it through a the other one for yourself. because Brad and Angelina through a polarizer — like
crystal that splits the photon are just your conduit for the polarized lenses used
Which one did you send,

26 DISCOVERMAG A ZINE .COM

TESTING ENTANGLEMENT

Particle strikes Particle strikes
detector A detector B

Vertically polarized 1Researchers test Horizontally
entanglement with light polarized
Light source particles of different
polarizations, meaning they 2 Horizontally polarized light cannot pass through
vibrate in different directions. a vertical slit. Instead, it bounces off and strikes a
Vertically polarized light different detector.
particles can pass through
a vertical slit to strike a
detector on the other side.

3 A pair of particles Dual light source Particle will sometimes
polarized the same way hit A, other times B
but not entangled have Polarization not yet
predictable behavior. Rotate determined Entangled particles
one of the slits, and a particle can cheat
will sometimes pass through
it, sometimes bounce off. How
often pairs set off the same
detector can be calculated
based on how much the slit
is rotated.

4 Quantum physics
changes the odds.
It allows for pairs of
particles that have the same
polarization but don’t decide
until after they pass through
their slits. These particles
cheat, and set off the same
detector more often.

ROEN KELLY/DISCOVER in sunglasses — to set her STEP 3 You’re not only with Brad, but also Spielberg still has Angelina.
atomic pole to a particular almost with Angelina, by virtue of And Angelina is still entangled
position on the vertical and there! Now you need to the preexisting Brangelina with the information that
horizontal axes. This gives you entangle the qubit called connection. All three of them Jennifer had. This means — ta
a quantum bit, or qubit, which Jennifer with the photon are entangled with each other. da! — the information Jennifer
can be a 0 or 1 at the same called Brad, who you’ve was carrying has now been
time. Similar to the 0s and 1s been hanging onto ever Now get this: Because teleported, instantaneously, to
of digital data, qubits can be since you sent Angelina to photons are so sensitive, the Spielberg’s photon.
strung together to encode any Spielberg. To do that, put very act of measuring them
message you want to send both Jennifer and Brad into a (to be sure that they are in You did it! Now you
— say, the script for a new beam splitter. When you do, fact entangled) destroys them. can only hope Spielberg
movie. Jennifer becomes entangled So, both Brad and Jennifer remembers to thank you at
vanish in your lab. But wait: the Oscars. — D.H.

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 27

Figueroa has miniaturized the entire system for holding These substations will shoot one photon
quantum memories into a portable device smaller than a of the pair toward each other and the
carry-on suitcase, small enough to mount on an ordinary other toward the closest of the two labs.
rack of computer servers at a data center — a crucial When one photon from each of the two
innovation if a quantum internet is ever to go mainstream. pairs meets at the 50-mile mark, they will
As his colleague and collaborator Dimitrios Katramatos become entangled, automatically entan-
tells me later that day: “They are portable, right? So, we gling the other remaining photons in the
loaded some of them up in a van one day and brought distant laboratories. Once this entangle-
them from Stony Brook to Brookhaven.” ment has been shared, the information
Figueroa wanted to send can be teleported
“He drove his wife’s van,” Figueroa says with a laugh. to the lab 100 miles away, overcoming the
“Ever since we have called it the Quantum Van.” barrier.

ENTANGLEMENT SWAPPING “You see?” he says with charming
enthusiasm. “Easy.”
Another problem remains, however — one that neither
THE QUANTUM FUTURE
Figueroa nor Katramatos (nor any other quantum And what about teleporting not just information, not just
messages, but also particles, molecules, cells or Captain
engineer in the world) has fully figured out so far: how Kirk? When the first experimental demonstration of
entanglement was reported in December 1997, IBM
to successfully transmit quantum-entangled photons physicist Charles H. Bennett told The New York Times: “It
would be utterly infeasible to do it even on something as
via fiber-optic cables past a barrier that appears around small as a bacterium.” (Bennett, it should be pointed out,
had coined the term quantum teleportation four years
the 60-mile mark. Beyond it, photons unintentionally earlier, so you would think he would be correct.)

interact with the cable, its housing or even sunlight from But 21 years later, in the fall of 2018, Oxford University
researchers reported exactly what Bennett had said was
above-ground, thereby destroying its entanglement. “utterly infeasible”: the entanglement of a living bacterium
“AND WHAT with a photon of light. Not all physicists were persuaded
The proposed solution, Figueroa by the findings, however, based as they were on the THIS PAGE: STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY. OPPOSITE PAGE: YURCHANKA SIARHEI/SHUTTERSTOCK
ABOUT explains, is something called “entangle- Oxford team’s analysis of another group’s experiment. But
ment swapping.” And quantum engineers then, nobody knows how far the quantum revolution will
around the world are competing to apply go — certainly not Figueroa.
TELEPORTING the concept to a working prototype.
NOT JUST “Many of the things these devices will do, we are still
“The idea has by now been around for trying to figure it out,” he tells me. “At the moment, we are
just trying to create technology that works. The really far
INFORMATION, 20 years,” says Mikhail Lukin, a leading reaches of what is possible are still to be discovered.”
NOT JUST
quantum theoretician and experimental- Before leaving him, I ask Figueroa how his friends,
family and neighbors try to understand his cryptic
MESSAGES, ist at Harvard University. “Up to now, work. He tells me a story about his father-in-law. Back
when Figueroa was conducting postdoctoral research in
BUT ALSO no one has succeeded in building one Germany, his wife’s father came to visit. After giving him
a two-hour tour of the lab, Figueroa asked him what he
PARTICLES, capable of being used in a practical thought of it all.
MOLECULES, application. As far as I understand, that’s
CELLS OR what [Figueroa]’s group is trying to do.” “I didn’t understand a word you said in there,” his
CAPTAIN KIRK? father-in-law said, “but I know it’s the most amazing thing
To explain his plan, Figueroa leads me I have ever seen.”
into a small meeting room, where he has
I could empathize. That’s how I felt before visiting
it all mapped out on a whiteboard. Figueroa, interrogating him repeatedly over the phone,
and reading his papers with far-out titles like “A Single-
“Let me show you something really cool,” he says. Atom Quantum Memory” and “Quantum Memory for
Squeezed Light.” But after all that, the whole thing began
Instead of creating only one pair of entangled photons to make sense to me. And I hope it does now for you, too.

and trying to send it to a lab 100 miles away, he explains, Kind of. D

a second set of entangled pairs are created in two different Dan Hurley is a science reporter and longtime contributor
to Discover.
substations located at the 25-mile and 75-mile marks.

28 DISCOVERMAGA ZINE .COM





JAY SMITH Researchers
are finding
clues to
autistic
behavior —
in patients’
microbiomes.

BACTERIA
AND THE
BRAIN

BY ADAM PIORE

It’s not always easy to convince
people that the human gut is a
sublime and wondrous place
worthy of special attention. Sarkis
Mazmanian discovered that soon
after arriving at Caltech for his
first faculty job 14 years ago, when
he explained to a local artist what
he had in mind for the walls
outside his new office.

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 31

Sarkis Mazmanian, The resulting mural greets visitors to the But the results they’ve seen in autism could, in
shown in front of a mural Mazmanian Lab today. A vaguely psychedelic, the end, prove the most transformative. Autism
that celebrates the 40-foot-long, tube-shaped colon that’s pink, affects about 1 in 59 children in the U.S., and
human gut, is part of a purple and red snakes down the hallway. In a involves profound social withdrawal, com-
group of microbiologists panel next to it, fluorescent yellow and green munication problems, and sometimes anxiety
researching the effects bacteria explode out of a deeply inflamed sec- and aggression. The causes of the brain disorder
of the digestive tract on tion of the intestinal tract, like radioactive lava have remained speculative. Now, Mazmanian
a range of disorders. from outer space. and other researchers are finding that autism
may be inextricably linked to — or even caused
The mural is modest compared with what by — irregularities in the gut microbiome. CALTECH
the scientist has been working on since. Over
the last decade or so, Mazmanian has been a A BIOLOGY STORY
leading proponent of the idea that the flora At 47, Mazmanian — with his shaved head,
of the human digestive tract has a far more flannel shirt and skinny jeans — resembles a
powerful effect on the human body and mind young, urban hipster on his way to write at the
than we thought — a scientific effort that earned local café. Originally, literary life was his plan.
him a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius
Grant” in 2012. Since then, Mazmanian and Born in Lebanon to two Armenian refugees,
a small but growing cadre of fellow microbi- neither of whom had more than a first-grade
ologists have amassed a tantalizing body of education, Mazmanian landed in the class of
evidence on the microbiome’s role in all kinds an energetic high school English teacher in
of brain disorders, including schizophrenia, California’s San Fernando Valley, where his
Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and family first settled. The teacher recognized his
depression. gift for language and encouraged him to pursue

32 DISCOVERMAG A ZINE .COM

This colorized close-up of a mouse’s gut reveals
the tight relationship between the gut microbe
Bacteroides fragilis (red) and the epithelial
surface of the colon (blue).

a career in literature. Mazmanian enrolled at for scientific pay dirt. But when he went to “THESE TINY
UCLA in 1990, planning to major in English. examine a printout of his results in the lab, he
realized immediately he might already be onto ORGANISMS
Everything changed when he took his first something big. The germ-free mice had a 30 FUNCTION AS
biology class. Hunched over his new, thick to 40 percent reduction in a specific type of POWERFUL,
textbook in the library, reading about basic bio- immune cell known as helper T-cells. SELF-CONTAINED
logical concepts like photosynthesis, Mazmanian MACHINES —
felt a vast new world opening up to him. Since helper T-cells play a key role in coor- POWERFUL
dinating attacks against invading pathogens, ENOUGH TO
“For the first time in my life, I wanted to turn the finding suggested that the immune systems TAKE OVER
the page and see where the story was going to of the germ-free mice were far less robust than AND DESTROY
go,” he says. “I think I decided that minute to those found in peers with normal levels of THE HUMAN
become a scientist.” microbes. BODY.

CALTECH Mazmanian was most fascinated by the idea “That was exciting, right?” Mazmanian
that tiny organisms, invisible to the naked eye, recalls. “Obviously I repeated it and tested it in a
could function as powerful, self-contained number of different ways. Then I asked the next
machines — powerful enough to take over and question: ‘Can I restore the [immune] function
destroy the human body. After graduating with in an adult animal?’ ”
a degree in microbiology, Mazmanian joined
a UCLA infectious diseases lab and began study- Mazmanian colonized the guts of the immu-
ing bacteria that cause staph infections. nocompromised, germ-free mice with microbes
from standard lab mice. After receiving the fecal
As his dissertation defense approached, transplant, their T-cell counts shot up. Within
Mazmanian read a one-page commentary a month, their numbers were identical to mice
penned by a prominent microbiologist, raised outside the germ-free bubble.
highlighting the fact that our intestines are
teeming with hundreds, if not thousands, of dif- Resolving to identify the microorganisms
ferent species of bacteria. But it was still largely causing this transformation, Mazmanian
unknown what they are and how they affect the resorted to trial and error. One by one, he added
human body. strains of bacteria found in the guts of mice to
the guts of germ-free mice.
When Mazmanian dug further, he found that
no one had yet answered what seemed to him
to be the most obvious question: Why would
the human immune system, designed to attack
and destroy foreign invaders, allow hundreds
of species of bacteria to live and thrive in our
guts unmolested? To him, the bacteria’s survival
implied that we had evolved to coexist with
them. And if that were so, he reasoned, there
must be some benefit to both the microbes and
the human body — a symbiotic relationship.
But what was it?

GUT INVADERS
Mazmanian set out to study the link between
gut microbes and the immune system. As a
postdoctoral researcher, he joined the lab of
Harvard University infectious disease specialist
Dennis Kasper.

To start, Mazmanian examined how the
immune systems of germ-free mice — lab mice
completely protected, starting at birth, from
all microbes — differed from those of mice
with either few or normal levels of microbes.
He expected this initial census would be
just a first step in a long and arduous quest

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 33

Ethan Woods “WITHIN A YEAR
had GI issues
and symptoms OF THE STUDY,
of autism until HIS SPEECH
researchers THERAPIST
introduced GRADUATED
new microbes HIM FROM
to his gut. His SPEECH
mother says THERAPY
the treatment BECAUSE HE
changed HAD MET ALL
everything. HIS GOALS.

A HEALTHY GUT, A NEW OUTLOOK I had never experienced a
happy kid in the morning.”
Prior to his fecal transplant at age 7, Ethan Woods suffered from
chronic and severe diarrhea, constipation and cramping, symptoms Later, Ethan carried over
so extreme that to his mother, Dana, he sounded like “a bit like a an iPad and opened an
woman in labor when he was trying to have a bowel movement.” app with a talking cat that
repeats back the words
“It was just awful skills rudimentary. He was just excited and happy children speak aloud.
watching your child go seemed to live in his own and ready to go about his He played back a video
through this,” she says, bubble. He had frequent day with this big smile. It recording of himself from
explaining that when she outbursts. For as long as choked me up to the point just a few weeks earlier.
enrolled her autistic son Dana could remember, her where I teared up because
in the Arizona State study, mornings with Ethan had “[He] looks me in the eye
her “only goal was to fix been marked by arguing, and says, ‘Mom, why did I DANA WOODS (2)
his gut.” fighting, pushing and anger. talk like that? What is wrong
But then one morning, with me?’ And as soon as he
Remarkably, Ethan’s something shocking did that, I caught my breath.
agony began to disappear happened. I had to compose myself
just a few weeks into the and say, ‘I don’t know. But
trial. But that was not the “He woke me up one do you feel better? Do you
most dramatic difference. morning with his face right feel different? Why do you
Before the transplant, in my face with this big think?’ ”
Ethan’s speech was drawn smile and he said, ‘Morning,
out and slow, his language Mom!’ ” she recalls. “And he Ethan’s communication
skills had already begun to
improve. Within a year of the
study, his speech therapist
graduated him from speech
therapy because he had met
all his goals.

“He went from one end of
the rainbow all the way to
the other end of the rainbow,”
she says. “Prior to the study,
I was very afraid. My biggest
fear was ‘how is he going to
navigate the world when I’m
not here?’ And I think I have
a lot of hope now that he is
going to be OK now on his
own.” — A.P.

34 DISCOVERMAGAZINE .COM

Many children with autism have some
type of gastrointestinal problem, which
led researchers to search for links
between the two.

He got nowhere with the first five or “You know,” Patterson interjected thought- “THE GUTS OF
six species he examined. Then, simply fully, “I think kids with autism have GI issues.”
because it was convenient, he decided THE AUTISM-
to test one more that was readily Patterson recalled reading that something MIMICKING
available in his lab. Mazmanian’s like 60 percent of children with autism had MICE WERE
adviser, Kasper, had been studying a some form of clinical GI problem, such as ALMOST
gut microbe called Bacteroides fragilis. bloating, constipation, flatulence or diarrhea. UNIFORMLY
When Mazmanian implanted one of Was it possible, he wondered, that there was INFLAMED.
Kasper’s specimens into the gut of a microbiome connection? COULD IT BE
his germ-free mice, the results were THAT THE
dramatic: The T-cell numbers spiked As they talked, Mazmanian’s excitement grew. MICROBIOME
to normal. Eventually, Mazmanian A few years earlier, Patterson had discovered WAS THE
demonstrated he could reproduce that when he exposed pregnant mice to patho- CAUSE?
this effect simply by adding a single gens like the influenza virus, they gave birth to
JAY SMITH molecule that these bacteria produce, pups that grew up more likely to be startled by
called polysaccharide A, to their guts. loud noises, to shy away from social contact and
to groom themselves repetitively — symptoms
“There was no logic in the choice that resemble those of autism. Patterson was
whatsoever,” Mazmanian recalls. in the process of comparing the brains of these
“[B. fragilis] was available, it came autism-mimicking mice with their neurotypical
from the gut.” In other words, he got lucky. cousins to see if he could detect any differences
that might explain how the maternal immune
Mazmanian dug deeper and discovered that system was somehow interfering with the pups’
the biggest impact B. fragilis had was on the brain development.
population of a subtype of helper T-cells called Mazmanian had a suggestion: The next time
regulatory, or suppressor, T-cells. These cells Patterson sacrificed one of his autistic mice to
play a key role in preventing the immune system study their brains, what if he set the intestines
from attacking its host body, protecting against aside for his colleague down the hall?
autoimmune or inflammatory diseases. It was When the guts arrived in Mazmanian’s lab,
the first time any scientist had demonstrated he found that the intestines of the neurotypical
that a single compound from a single microbe mice looked normal. But the guts of the autism-
could reverse a specific problem with the mimicking offspring were almost uniformly
immune system. inflamed. Could it be that the microbiome was
the cause of this inflammation? And could
To Mazmanian, the finding, published that, in turn, be somehow connected to the
in 2005 in the journal Cell, alluded to new behavioral symptoms?
approaches to treating a wide array of autoim-
mune, inflammatory and allergic disorders.
What if it were possible to help a faulty immune
system by tweaking a patient’s microbiome?
It was with this exploration in mind that he
arrived in Pasadena in 2006 to set up his lab
at Caltech.

A CONVENIENT COLLABORATION
A few years later, Mazmanian was having
lunch on campus with neuroscientist and
colleague Paul Patterson. Patterson had been
preoccupied with a mystery that had, for years,
confounded those studying autism in humans:
When pregnant mothers have a severe infection
in the second trimester, their babies are much
more likely to develop autism.

As Mazmanian tells it, Patterson was a man
of few words, and at lunch Mazmanian was
“going on and on” about his own work.

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 35

“AT THE END Throughout the winter and mice with autism-like symptoms.

OF THE DAY, spring of 2012, Mazmanian and The researchers published their
WHAT WE
CARE ABOUT Patterson continued their conversa- results in Cell in 2013.
IS HEALING
PEOPLE AND tion. Mazmanian found distinct Though surprising, the data
HOW THE
MICROBIOME differences in the microbiomes of made sense in some ways. Many
AFFECTS
PEOPLE.” the mice. And, they noticed, the drug companies rely on small-

Rosa Krajmalnik- mice with the features of autism molecule drugs that can be taken
Brown, microbiologist
had leaky gut syndrome, an orally, but still manage to cross

increased permeability of the gut the blood-brain barrier and affect

lining that can allow pathogens behavior. It seemed entirely pos-

and allergens to leach out. This sible that small molecules, created

condition had also been reported The late Paul Patterson laid by bacteria in the gut, could enter
in children with autism. important groundwork in the bloodstream and reach the
mice for Mazmanian. brain. And they don’t even have
So Mazmanian and Patterson

turned their attention outside the to leak out of the gut to do so.

gut. They took blood samples to see if any gut

microbes, or the compounds they produce, OF MICE AND MEN

were circulating in the rest of the body. They Patterson died in 2014, at age 70, just six months

homed in on one molecule in particular, called after the publication of the duo’s groundbreak-

4-ethylphenyl sulfate, which was roughly ing Cell paper. Around the same time, a series

45 times as abundant in the mice that had of parallel experiments in a clinic hundreds of

symptoms of autism. And it looked familiar: miles away was already paving the way forward.

Structurally, it was almost identical to a mol- While Patterson and Mazmanian had been

ecule recently found to be significantly elevated working in mice, Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown,

in human children with autism. a microbiologist at Arizona State University,

It was enough to take the next step. Every had teamed up with Jim Adams, who directs

day for three weeks, Mazmanian injected the university’s autism and Asperger’s research

the molecule, harvested from the mice with program, to study humans.

autism-like symptoms, directly into the The researchers were conducting a detailed

bloodstream of 5-week-old normal lab mice analysis of the microbiome of human autism

(the age at which the autistic mice normally patients and found that the bacteria were far less

developed leaky gut). Then Mazmanian and his diverse in the children with autism. Notably,

team gave them a series of behavioral tests. The several important species involved in the diges-

mice were far more easily startled and were less tion of carbohydrates were severely depleted.

comfortable in large empty spaces than their Krajmalnik-Brown and Adams launched

untreated peers, indications of an increase in a preliminary trial to test the effects of fecal

anxiety-related behaviors commonly seen in the transplants on 18 children between the ages

THE ASD AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER (ASD)
RAINBOW
HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM SEVERE AUTISM FROM TOP: CALTECH; ELIZABETH M. WEBER/DISCOVER
The autism spectrum AUTISM
describes people LEVEL 2 LEVEL 3
with a wide range of LEVEL 1 Needs substantial Needs very
developmental disorders. Needs support support substantial support
Many who were high-
functioning used to be Patient’s social and Patient’s social and Patient’s social and
diagnosed separately, communication skills communication skills communication skills
such as having Asperger and repetitive behaviors and repetitive behaviors and repetitive behaviors
syndrome. Now, medical are only noticeable are obvious to the casual severely impair daily life.
experts use a series without support. observer, even with
of levels to figure out support in place.
where patients lie on
the spectrum.

Autism in
the U.S.,
by the
numbers:

44%

Children on
the spectrum
with average or
above-average
intellect (IQ higher
than 85).

FROM LEFT: CALTECH; SABUHI NOVRUZOV/SHUTTERSTOCK of 7 and 16 with severe autism, who also had particular a surge in the populations of three 10%
severe GI issues. The researchers administered types of bacteria. Among them was a four-
powerful antibiotics to kill off the microbiomes fold increase in Bifidobacterium, a probiotic Children who
of the children and followed them with a bowel organism that seems to play a key role in the also are savants,
cleanse. They then replaced the microbes with maintenance of a healthy gut. or patients
transplanted flora taken from the guts of healthy showing
neurotypical adult volunteers. But figuring out what was happening on a remarkable
cellular level — to really look inside some guts memory and skill
The results were better than anyone could have — would require another vehicle. The ASU team in a specific area,
expected. The procedure resulted in a large reduc- needed Mazmanian’s mice. such as music.
tion in GI symptoms and increased the diversity of
bacteria in the children’s guts. But more signifi- “At the end of the day, what we care about is 20%
cantly, their neurological symptoms were reduced. healing people and how the microbiome affects
people,” explains Krajmalnik-Brown. “That’s Children with
At the onset of the study in 2017, an indepen- why we work with people. But with mice you enlarged brains
dent evaluator found 83 percent of participants can do things that are more mechanistic.” as infants and
had severe autism. Two years after the initial toddlers.
trial, only 17 percent were rated as severely THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE
autistic. And 44 percent were no longer on the Together, Krajmalnik-Brown, Mazmanian and Girls
autism scale. their collaborators would uncover some tanta-
lizing new insights that go a long way to solving 1 in 189.
“[My child] did a complete 180,” says Dana the mystery. In May 2019, the team published
Woods, whose then-7-year-old son Ethan another high-profile paper in Cell, after they Boys
enrolled in the initial study five years ago. “His transplanted stool samples from Krajmalnik-
ability to communicate is so much different now. Brown’s severely autistic patients into the guts of 1 in 42.
He’s just so much more present. He’s so much Mazmanian’s germ-free mice. The offspring of
more aware. He’s no longer in occupational these mice showed the autism-like symptoms,
therapy. He’s no longer in speech therapy. After such as repetitive and compulsive behavior.
the study, he tested two points away from a
neurotypical child.” This time, the team dug even deeper into the
biochemical processes playing out in the brain,
In their first report on the trial in 2017, the looking not just at behavior but at the chemicals
team highlighted a number of distinct changes involved in creating it. The mice that developed
in the microbiome after the transplants, in

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 37

AUTISM AND THE BRAIN

Years of studies in children on the autism spectrum suggest they have an increased brain volume that may correlate
with the severity of their symptoms. But the brain returns to normal size, or smaller, by the time a child is an
adolescent. Studies have also indicated various brain regions as playing a role in autism spectrum disorder (ASD),
and that these areas may fluctuate in size compared with brains of kids without ASD, but the work is still inconclusive.

Superior Prefrontal Corpus callosum
temporal cortex Connects the
sulcus (includes right and left brain
Involved in the cerebral hemispheres;
perception cortex) one-third of people
of emotions and Responsible for born without
facial cues; shown cognitive and this structure are
to have structural social learning; on the spectrum.
abnormalities. may cause faulty
connections to Caudate nucleus
other parts of Stores and
the brain. processes
memories, acting
as a feedback
mechanism to
regulate future
behavior.

Amygdala Hippocampus
Regulates Deals with
emotions, memory and
especially those learning; in
for survival, mouse models,
such as fear and it’s sometimes
aggression; there’s enlarged.
conflicting evidence
that neurons in
this brain area
can be over-
or underconnected.

Pars FROM LEFT: SCIEPRO/GETTY IMAGES; EVAN OTO/SCIENCE SOURCE
opercularis
Involved in
language
comprehension.

Cerebellum
Controls
motor skills,
including
muscles for
speech.

38 DISCOVERMAGA ZINE .COM

Though the first fecal transplant trial only
had 18 participants, many other studies
explain a possible mechanism for how
gut health could affect autistic behavior.

autism-like behaviors had measur- Nor was that the only criticism. Several “I’M NOT READY
ably lower levels of two substances researchers have suggested that the group
called taurine and 5-aminovaleric didn’t give proper attention to one of their tests TO SAY THE
acid (5AV). When they dug into the — one whose results conflicted with their thesis CASE IS
literature, the team learned that these — while others found flaws in the statistical CLOSED.
two substances are known to mimic methods they used to assess their results. HEALTHY
activity of a key signaling agent in the Mazmanian downplays these criticisms, but SKEPTICISM IS
brain called gamma-aminobutyric agrees the work is not yet conclusive. A GOOD THING.
acid (GABA) — a neurotransmitter I BELIEVE THE
that other studies have found is Meanwhile, the ASU trial has also engendered DATA. BUT
deficient in the brains of children skepticism, mainly due to its tiny sample size, THERE’S A LOT
with autism. the lack of a control group and the methods by OF STUDIES
which the children were assessed for autism THAT STILL
What’s more, some have speculated severity. Krajmalnik-Brown and Adams say they NEED TO BE
that the tendency of children with stand by their results, but agree more research is DONE.”
autism to experience sensory over- needed. In recent months, they have launched
stimulation may stem from the inabil- two new studies that will address these issues. Sarkis Mazmanian,
ity to tamp down overexcited neurons. microbiologist
A lack of GABA could lead to just that. Adams insists the work is already changing
MASTER1305/SHUTTERSTOCK lives. “We followed up with every one of our 18
The scientists next orally adminis- participants,” he says, referring to the children
tered high levels of taurine and 5AV to pregnant who received fecal transplants. “Sure enough,
mice with the autistic children’s microbiomes. we found that most of the GI benefits had
When their pups were born, the researchers remained. And family after family said their
continued to feed the young the substances child just slowly, steadily continued making
until they reached adulthood. Compared more improvement.” They published the update
with untreated animals, the second-generation in Scientific Reports in spring 2019.
mice had significantly fewer behavioral
symptoms. Taurine reduced repetitive behavior, “I’m not ready to say the case is closed,” says
as measured by marble burying, increased the Mazmanian. “Healthy skepticism is a good
level of social interaction, and relieved anxiety. thing. I believe the preclinical data, I believe the
Mice administered 5AV were more active mouse data. But there’s a lot of studies that still
and social. need to be done.” D

“We healed humans with behavioral Adam Piore is the author of The Body Builders, a book
problems,” says Krajmalnik-Brown. “[And we] about how bioengineering is unleashing untapped
transferred some of those deficits and behaviors human resilience.
to mice — basically the opposite. It’s huge.”

Mazmanian hopes to take the next step in
the months ahead.

“I can flip a switch, turn on a light, I know
that switch turns on that light. I don’t know
the circuit, I don’t know where the wire is,”
Mazmanian says. “Exactly how that’s happening
… we just don’t understand that.”

This most recent study, by itself, hardly proves
that dysregulated microbiomes cause the brain
disorder — a point that plenty of other scientists
skeptical of Mazmanian’s work are happy
to make.

“The paper made a big splash, but trying to
model psychiatric-related human conditions
in mice, in my view, is a little bit of a stretch,”
says Sangram Sisodia, a neurobiologist at the
University of Chicago who studies the microbi-
ome. “A mouse with autism?”

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 39



COVER ANXIETY?
STORY PANIC DISORDER?
DEPRESSION?
GUT
It’s not just in your head.
Mounting evidence shows
bugs in your digestive
system influence the brain.
Experts are now testing
psychobiotics as mental
health remedies.

FEELING
BY ELIZABETH SVOBODA

COOLGRAPHIC/SHUTTERSTOCK Every muscle fiber in Tom Peters’ body
seemed to be conspiring to keep him in
bed. His depression — an occasional visitor
for more than a decade — had reemerged in
the summer of 2019, and his legs and arms
felt like concrete. The thought of spending
another 12-hour day at his computer filled
him with dread. As a technical day trader
for stocks, he responded to demanding
clients constantly. That felt impossible
when his brain kept blaring his past failures
at top volume.

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 41

“BACTERIA IN Fielding the volley of work messages became speculated about this linkage since ancient
a Sisyphean task. “There’s always the overriding times. Hippocrates, who is credited with saying
YOUR GUT fear that I’m not going to come out of it, that I’m “all disease begins in the gut,” speculated that
PRODUCE always going to feel this way,” Peters says. “That black bile spilled from the spleen into the
ABOUT probably is the scariest thing.” intestines and brought on dark moods.
90 PERCENT
OF THE Peters, 50, had read about mood probiotics, Theories like these grew more sophisticated
SEROTONIN gut bacterial strains marketed to help with over the centuries as scientists learned more
IN YOUR depression and anxiety, but never felt like they about the microorganisms in the human gut.
BODY — THE were for him. “I was very skeptical,” he says. (We now know there are literally trillions of
SAME HAPPY When his wife, who was battling panic attacks, them.) By the late 19th century, doctors argued
HORMONE tried mood probiotics and saw her episodes that “melancholia,” a then-common term for
THAT diminish, he began to reconsider. After his depression, arose from overgrowth of intestinal
REGULATES depression symptoms returned last summer, microbes. But physicians at the time understood
YOUR MOODS. and the Prozac he’d tried in the past had lost its little about what these microbes did in the body.
potency, his wife went online and ordered him So, early gut-based treatments — including
a bottle of the same oatmeal-colored capsules major abdominal surgery for schizophrenia — SEANIDSTUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK
she was taking. were doomed to fail.

For decades, experts scoffed at the idea that gut Fast-forward a century, and data from speedy
bacteria affect our mental health. Many called it genome sequencing of gut bacteria in the 2000s
a fringe theory. Yet mounting evidence suggests revealed that microbes perform an array of
that intestinal microbes profoundly shape our bodily tasks. Further studies showed how some
thinking and behavior. Human trials are now might affect mental health. Each of us, it turns
underway to investigate how these microbes out, is more microbe than human: Bacterial cells
boost our overall well-being. If the results hold outnumber human cells in the body by a factor
up, new bacteria-based therapies could expand a
mental health treatment landscape that has been
mostly stagnant for decades.

“Current treatments [for mental health] are
not great,” says University of Calgary psychiatrist
and microbe researcher Valerie Taylor. “When
they do work, many of them are intolerable.
People are desperate.”

MORE THAN A FEELING
Anyone who’s sprinted to the bathroom
moments before a speech or felt a wave of
nausea after public humiliation knows the gut
and the brain are connected. Doctors have

42 DISCOVERMAG A ZINE .COM

of at least 1.3 to 1. The human gut plays host Years earlier, when Peters’ old dose of Prozac Scientists have identified
to more than 100 trillion of these bacteria — wasn’t working as well, his psychiatrist had thousands of unique
a complex, interdependent microbial universe prescribed him a new, higher dose, one that bacteria strains that
wedged between your ribcage and spine. brought on annoying side effects. “On the higher live in the gut.
dose, I felt like I was more sluggish,” Peters
NATTAPAT.J/SHUTTERSTOCK; INSETS: STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY (3) While the human genome consists of roughly says. “It drove me crazy.” The memory of that
25,000 genes, the swarm of microbes in your gut unrelenting brain fog helped persuade him to
expresses about 3 million distinct genes. Many give probiotics a try.
of these bacterial genes help build molecules
that let you digest food, keep harmful microbes WHAT HAPPENS IN THE VAGUS
at bay, and even feel emotions. For starters, the In the mid- to late 2000s, John Cryan of Ireland’s
bacteria in your gut produce about 90 percent University College Cork was among the first
of the serotonin in your body — yep, the same to explore gut microbes’ effects on the brain. A
happy hormone that regulates your moods and neurobiologist by training, Cryan had shown
promotes well-being. that rats stressed from birth later showed signs
of both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and
For Peters, the prospect of a new path looked mood disturbance. “When they grew up,” Cryan
tantalizing after enduring the marathon of tra- says, “they had a whole-body syndrome.” This
ditional options. He had gone through multiple finding echoed doctors’ observations that many
stints on Prozac — a selective serotonin reuptake patients with digestive symptoms also had
inhibitor (SSRI) — and wondered if he’d maxed mental health issues, and vice versa.
out the drug’s potential. “I went off them for a
while, then I went back on them, and I felt like When researchers at Cryan’s lab sampled
I developed a resistance of sorts,” he says. It’s a gut bacteria from stressed-out rats in 2009
familiar tale for almost anyone who takes SSRIs and sequenced them, they hit on something
for long-term depression.

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 43

A HEALTHIER GUT

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT PROBIOTICS INTESTINES: DANIELA BARRETO/SHUTTERSTOCK. BACTERIA: MICROONE/SHUTTERSTOCK

It’s becoming clearer that some probiotics help make your gut happy. A major
review of recent studies shows they can treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and
various types of diarrhea. But navigating the options (and false claims) can be, well, a
crapshoot. For example, a probiotic that treats influenza or common cold symptoms?
There’s little evidence to support this.

As for the impact on mental health, Fermented foods: Foods like studies. In one human trial, people
larger human trials will help determine sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir — a type taking these two bacteria reported a
their effectiveness. Meanwhile, a of fermented milk — naturally contain greater drop in depression symptoms
decade-plus of experimental study has bacterial strains tied to anti-depressive than those on a placebo. The bacteria
helped researchers assemble a first- effects, such as Lactobacillus may boost mood by lowering levels of
string lineup of promising bacterial helveticus or Lactobacillus acidophilus. stress hormones like cortisol.
strains. But those interested should That might explain the mood lift some
proceed with caution. The probiotic people report from eating them. L. acidophilus: This much-touted
supplement industry in the U.S. is probiotic strain activated mood-
“not FDA-regulated, so there could L. helveticus and Bifidobacterium stabilizing gut opioid receptors
still be a risk,” says Lauren Bylsma, longum: This bacterial duo — a in one animal study. It also helps
a University of Pittsburgh clinical common combo in products marketed strengthen the intestinal lining, which
research psychologist. as mood probiotics — has shown some prevents inflammatory compounds
mettle in both human and animal from migrating to the brain.
Common treatments include:

44 DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM

surprising: Stressed-out animals — those more produced more of a protein called brain-derived “THE VAGUS NERVE
prone to mental health issues — had a less neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps new
diverse assortment of gut microbes, or micro- neurons grow. FUNCTIONS LIKE A
biome, than their more relaxed counterparts. COMMUNICATION
“It got us thinking — if you stress an animal, Even as scientists highlight these kinds of SUPERHIGHWAY
[maybe] there’s a signature in the microbiome connections between gut microbe treatments BETWEEN THE
that’s persisting,” Cryan says. and symptom improvement, the question of BRAIN, GUT AND
causality has lingered: Do gut bacterial changes OTHER ORGAN
In the past decade or so, more labs have actually drive mood and behavioral changes? SYSTEMS IN THE
started reporting that gut bacteria produce A growing body of research suggests they do. HUMAN BODY.
a smorgasbord of compounds that affect the
CLUSTERX/SHUTTERSTOCK mind in surprising ways, both good and bad Several innovative studies since 2016 show
for your emotional health. Some bacteria in that fecal transplants can shape behavior
the Clostridium genus generate propionic acid, profoundly, according to Bylsma and Taylor.
which can reduce your body’s production of When mice in one Chinese study got transplants
mood-boosting dopamine and serotonin. of feces from other healthy mice, their behavior
Microbes like bifidobacteria enhance production remained unchanged. But when mice received
of butyrate, an anti-inflammatory substance that fecal transplants from donors with signs of
keeps gut toxins out of the brain. Other species anxiety and depression, the mice started to show
produce the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor signs of mood disturbance. A separate study
to mood-balancing serotonin. published in Molecular Psychiatry showed mice
that received fecal transplants from depressed
Rather than passing from the gut to the humans also developed depressive symptoms.
brain via bloodstream, some of these chemicals On the other hand, stressed-out mice in a 2019
affect the brain through intermediate channels, study received transplants from unstressed
says University of Pittsburgh clinical research animals and began acting less depressed. By
psychologist Lauren Bylsma. A major one, the changing the intestinal microbiome, researchers
vagus nerve, functions like a communication “can actually change the rodents’ behavior,” says
superhighway between the brain, gut and other Bylsma, who was not involved with the studies.
organ systems in the human body. Recently “That implies there is a causal effect.”
discovered neuropod cells can activate or
deactivate the vagus nerve, which interfaces with FROM PETRI DISH TO HUMAN BODY
neurons in the brain. Research shows that certain Of course, dialing back depression-like
gut bacteria help activate those neuropod cells. symptoms in mice is a long way from rolling
out gut-based mental health treatment to the
While researchers continue to map the work- public. Researchers love to joke about how many
ings of what they’ve dubbed the “gut-brain axis” diseases they’ve cured in rodents. But Taylor
— the two-way communication link between the is hopeful about the prospects of replicating
GI tract and the central nervous system — many gut-bacteria treatment successes in people.
already think it creates a major potential avenue
for mental health treatment. Talk to psychiatrists Taylor’s current approach is fecal trans-
about what causes mental illnesses like depres- plantation, which involves exactly what
sion and “you get a list of 10 mechanisms,” says you might guess: a human-to-human poop
Philip Strandwitz, co-founder and CEO of exchange. Often, people ingest the feces in
biotech company Holobiome. “When you talk to a pill. Sometimes, doctors offer poo-rich
microbiome folks and ask them if you can affect enemas to seed the digestive tract with new
those mechanisms, the answer is largely yes.” microbes. Taylor has started two small-scale
fecal transplant trials — the first on people with
Since the concept of the gut-brain axis went bipolar disorder, and the second on those with
mainstream, labs have accumulated even more depression — to find out whether feces from
evidence to support the notion. Earlier this year, healthy human donors boosts recipients’ moods
Cryan and a team of international colleagues and well-being. She is also taking samples of
gave a group of stressed mice regular doses of a subjects’ gut microbiomes before, during and
Bifidobacterium gut microbe for five weeks. By after treatment to track any notable changes.
the end, the mice were more mobile and active
than before. They were also more willing to Human studies of oral probiotic therapy
interact and explore new areas. are a bit further along. A survey of small-scale
controlled trials found that Bifidobacterium
The whole time, Cryan tracked changes in and Lactobacillus strains improved depressive
the mice’s gut bacteria. During a treatment with symptoms overall, while other studies show
Bifidobacterium breve, their gut bacteria started similar effects on anxiety. One Australian
making more tryptophan. Treated mice also

NOVEMBER 2020 . DISCOVER 45

study published in 2017 even suggests that a human clinical trials. But they have shown some
diet higher in beneficial bacteria can banish mood-lifting promise in smaller human studies.
depression in more than a third of people. Even so, before Peters popped one of the capsules
Microbes have also shown promise for less for the first time, he felt his natural skepticism
common mental health disorders: In a 2019 rearing up.
paper on a Japanese trial, 12 of 29 participants
with schizophrenia who ingested a specific About a week into his new regimen, though,
Bifidobacterium strain saw their depression he began to notice a subtle mood shift that soon
and anxiety symptoms lift within four weeks. became more pronounced. “I felt sharper, more
energetic — just a more positive outlook in
Microbiologist Jeroen Raes thinks the general,” he says. “I felt like I was more relaxed
at night.” Putting in a day at his desk no longer
JEROEN RAES felt like rolling boulders up a hill. It wasn’t that
he was abnormally happy, or that he had endless
“WHO’S MAKING cosmos of gut microbes that affect the human reserves of enthusiasm. Instead, what he felt was
brain may be even larger than these initial an anchoring inner calm, as if the choppy waves
THE MONEY? trials suggest. Raes and his team at Belgium’s he’d been riding had receded.
IT’S NOT AS VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology have
OBVIOUS AS IN harvested poop samples from more than 1,000 A PROVING GROUND
OTHER AREAS. people, scanning for gut microbe profiles that The next psychobiotics milestone, scientists
IF THIS WAS A accompany their reported mood symptoms. So say, will be full-scale clinical trials that show
PHARMACEUTICAL far, he’s found that people with more butyrate- whether microbes or microbial cocktails boost
STRATEGY, IT producing gut microbes — such as certain types well-being beyond placebo effects common in
WOULD BE of Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus — have a psychiatric treatment studies. “You need trials,
VERY CLEAR.” higher quality of life, while people with lower lev- and you need placebo control in those trials,”
els of Coprococcus are more likely to be depressed. Raes says. “If you have a trial that works, you
John Cryan, neurobiologist need to replicate it in an index population.”
Ultimately, Raes predicts the emergence of
a kind of probiotic therapy that researchers We’ll likely be waiting at least two years for GREETJE VAN BUGGENHOUT
are calling “psychobiotics.” In that potential those definitive results. One sticking point in
treatment universe, people with depression, the outcome could come from drug companies,
anxiety or other mental health issues would and whether they can identify a substantial
routinely have their gut microbiomes sequenced. profit. Many gut-based remedies contain
Those with high levels of bacteria tied to poor naturally occurring bacteria, which makes
mental health, or low levels of bacteria that them difficult to patent.
healthy people have in abundance, could receive
a tailored probiotic or fecal transplant to fix “Who’s making the money? It’s not as obvious
the imbalance. as in other areas,” Cryan says. “If this was a
pharmaceutical strategy, it would be very clear.”
The probiotic strains Peters began taking — (Strandwitz plans to get around this problem
Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium by patenting compositions of microbes and a
longum — hadn’t been vetted in large-scale particular way of delivering them to patients.)

Another issue is that, while certain types of
bacteria have more profound effects on the brain
than others, there probably won’t be any magic-
bullet strains that work for everyone. Some gut
bacteria function best alongside a constellation
of varieties, complicating the picture further
— especially since gut bugs number in the
trillions and represent more than 500 different
species. “One bacterial profile might be good
for one person and one for another person,” says
Bylsma. “The findings are not always consistent.”
And with fecal transplants, it can be difficult
to control exactly which bacterial species a
patient receives.

If the mix of probiotics, fecal transplants and
diets do prove their mettle, Raes says, gut-based
therapies will likely be considered an adjunct to
treatments like medication and counseling, not

46 DISCOVERMAGAZINE .COM

necessarily a replacement. “It’s going to be part of research, experts don’t all agree on how to advise Gut experts say probiotics
the story. It’s not going to be the whole story.” patients seeking treatment options. Raes won’t and fecal transplants
recommend any gut-based therapy before it goes might join antidepressants
INCHING TOWARD INTERVENTIONS through full clinical trials. But Taylor contends as prescribed mental
Since current psychiatric drugs don’t work well that even if probiotic strains’ effects on mood health remedies.
for many people, DIY spins on gut research find- remain unproven, they don’t appear harmful.
PARAMEPRIZMA/SHUTTERSTOCK ings have already begun. In some circles, at-home When patients ask about probiotics, she doesn’t
fecal transplantation has exploded in popularity, discourage them from trying them out.
fueled by testimonials that sing praises. But
experts strongly discourage this, as stool samples Peters avoids dissecting the sequence of
that have not been tested could contain bacteria internal events that banished his depression; he’s
that cause life-threatening illness. “It is extremely just thrilled it’s gone. Stress and time pressures
dangerous,” Raes says. “You do this at home, you remain constant in his work life, but he feels like
have no control.” he navigates these bumps more gracefully. “There
are days I’m able to focus a thousand percent and
Over-the-counter probiotics offer a more there are days I’m not as productive, but there’s
mainstream DIY options. While doctors gener- more stability,” he says. “It’s not like a yo-yo, way
ally regard common strains like B. breve and up one day and way down another.” Along with
L. acidophilus as safe for human consumption the probiotics, he takes a Prozac dose that’s a
— they appear in foods like yogurt, kombucha fraction of what he took in the past. It has kept
and kefir — bacteria are bioactive substances, his old brain fog at bay. “To be able to get an extra
so ingesting them involves some level of risk. hour or two out of my day so I can be present for
my kids — to me, that’s amazing.” D
And in the U.S., the supplement industry is
largely unregulated. That means consumers have Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer in San Jose,
to take companies’ word that probiotics contain California. Her latest book is the Life Heroic: How
the strains listed on the label. to Unleash Your Most Amazing Self.

Given the rapidly evolving state of gut-brain

NOVEM BER 2020 . DISCOVER 47

C O
BY JOAN MEINERS

48 DISCOVERMAGAZINE .COM

THERE’S A MAN
WHO LOVES CHICKENS

— ALMOST AS MUCH
AS HE LOVES SCIENCE.

HE’S PROBING
THE DEPTHS OF
EVOLUTIONARY
BIOLOGY, GENETICS
AND THE UNEXPECTED
BENEFITS OF FERAL

BIRDS.


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