It’s absolutely ages since I bought New Scientist. Don’t get me wrong – I love reading it; it’s my favourite popular science magazine – but sometimes there just isn’t time for magazines. Today, however, in the newsagent, the cover caught my eye, and, because I touched upon quantum theory at university, I decided to treat myself.
I got home and opened the magazine up. And there it was, the first featured item on the contents page:
The unlikeliest transplant*
Replacing faecal matter could ease Parkinson’s symptoms
(*You need a subscription to read online).
I turned to page 8 and read:
A few years ago, John Gillies had trouble picking up his grandchild. He would stand frozen, waiting for his Parkinson’s disease to relinquish its hold and allow him to move. Then in May 2008, Gillies was given antibiotics to treat constipation, and astonishingly his Parkinson’s symptoms abated. What on earth was going on?
A nice anecdote, and one to inspire hope. Researchers are investigating the link between bacteria in the gut and a number of disorders – in addition to Parkinson’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis are also mentioned.
The theory is that gut bacteria may enter the central nervous system via the vagus nerve, which runs from the colon, small intestine and stomach to the brain. An infection of the colon may release antigens into the bloodstream and so trigger an autoimmune response. Alleviating the colon infection may have unexpected, beneficial, effects elsewhere.
However, unless the antigen is completely cleared from the gut (this is where the idea of a faecal transplant is introduced – effectively adding ‘good’ bacteria to the colon), the immune response is relentless and will manifest as an autoimmune disease.
The idea that Parkinson’s is an autoimmune disease has been suggested by recent research. I’m not sure how well established this theory is, though, but it seems to have given researchers several avenues to investigate.
The use of gut flora to treat various conditions by means of transplant seems to be a relatively new idea that has yet to be developed into anything that can be used on a large scale. As one researcher quoted in the article says, “You don’t want to treat one disease and introduce another” (Arthur Kaser, University of Cambridge, UK).
It’s great to see these things being reported in the (almost) mainstream press, and it was especially gratifying to find such an article in the first copy of New Scientist that I’ve picked up in months.