Mining microbes for mental health: Determining the role of microbial metabolic pathways in human brain health and disease.

Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. 2021;125:698-761

Plain language summary

The microbiota-gut-brain axis is an emerging area of focus for mental health and disease. Metabolic products from gut microbiota exert direct and indirect effects on the brain through various body systems. The aim of this study was to review the evidence on these metabolic pathways and utilise new predictive tools to assess metabolic signatures of various disease states. This review included 278 studies and, despite the weak evidence, identified new links between gut microbial metabolic pathways in schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and anxiety and depression. The authors conclude this review provides a novel approach for understanding the mechanisms behind the bidirectional communication between the gut and brain. They also suggest guidelines for analysing and interpreting metadata of human-microbiome-brain studies and provide a framework for better understanding these metabolic pathways in relation to the brain.


There is increasing knowledge regarding the role of the microbiome in modulating the brain and behaviour. Indeed, the actions of microbial metabolites are key for appropriate gut-brain communication in humans. Among these metabolites, short-chain fatty acids, tryptophan, and bile acid metabolites/pathways show strong preclinical evidence for involvement in various aspects of brain function and behaviour. With the identification of neuroactive gut-brain modules, new predictive tools can be applied to existing datasets. We identified 278 studies relating to the human microbiota-gut-brain axis which included sequencing data. This spanned across psychiatric and neurological disorders with a small number also focused on normal behavioural development. With a consistent bioinformatics pipeline, thirty-five of these datasets were reanalysed from publicly available raw sequencing files and the remainder summarised and collated. Among the reanalysed studies, we uncovered evidence of disease-related alterations in microbial metabolic pathways in Alzheimer's Disease, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression. Amongst studies that could not be reanalysed, many sequencing and technical limitations hindered the discovery of specific biomarkers of microbes or metabolites conserved across studies. Future studies are warranted to confirm our findings. We also propose guidelines for future human microbiome analysis to increase reproducibility and consistency within the field.

Lifestyle medicine

Fundamental Clinical Imbalances : Neurological ; Digestive, absorptive and microbiological
Patient Centred Factors : Mediators/Microbiota
Environmental Inputs : Microorganisms
Personal Lifestyle Factors : Nutrition ; Psychological
Functional Laboratory Testing : Not applicable
Bioactive Substances : Serotonin ; Cholesterol ; Butyrate ; Acetate ; Propionate

Methodological quality

Jadad score : Not applicable
Allocation concealment : Not applicable


Nutrition Evidence keywords : Anxiety ; Schizophrenia ; Alzheimer’s disease ; Depression ; Anxiety