Gut Microbes and Infant Cognitive Development (2014-15)

This collaboration between researchers at the Center for Mind and Brain and the Foods for Health Institute will bring together cutting edge developmental science and biochemistry to examine the connection between maternal and infant nutrition and microbiota on cognitive development. This project was funded in January, 2015.

PI: Lisa M. Oakes, Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain
Collaborators: Bruce German, Food Science and Technology and the Foods for Health Institute; Jennifer Smilowitz, Foods for Health Institute


Developmental scientists have long been concerned about the mechanisms of brain development. Researchers have investigated the roles of external experience such as enrichment or the “Mozart effect,” or maturational processes such as genetic determinants of structural brain development. Studies have revealed nutrition is important in brain development.Severe undernutrition in protein, iron and iodine can have long-ranging implications for cognitive and brain development. Efforts to supplement such nutrients can have a significant impact on outcomes.

Recently, inroads have been made into understanding the connection between the gut and the brain in general, with increasing attention on the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Research has revealed that bacterial colonization of the intestine plays an important and direct role in neurological functioning, and has been implicated in psychiatric disorders from anxiety to autism. Studies of germ-free mice reveal a connection between intestinal microbiota and brain development, particularly in hippocampal development.

Understanding how the microbiota-gut-brain axis contributes to brain development has broad societal implications. Findings that gut microbiota influences cognitive development may inform interventions in at-risk populations. Just as the work on the role of essential fatty acids contributed to changes in the ingredients in infant formula, a deep understanding of other connections between gut and brain may lead to other recommendations and practices regarding infant feeding. Findings from such work may also provide further insight into the potential effects of medical practices, such as elective C-section and prescription antibiotics, that have been shown to alter the infants’ microbiota.