Research investigates how gut wages war on brains of soldiers

University of Newcastle

Harnessing the unique relationship between the gut and brain, new research will interrogate Australian soldiers’ gut microbiome to optimise their cognitive and psychological performance in combat.


The human gut microbiome, which consists of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful, is a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes, fungi, and viruses – intricately linked to cognition, social behaviour, anxiety and stress.

The Australian Government Department of Defence has awarded $3.5m to an expert interdisciplinary research collaboration between the University of Newcastle, Hunter Medical Research Institute, Queensland University of Technology, University of Queensland and biotechnology company Microba to perform a comprehensive analysis of soldiers ‘cognobiome’.

The unique collaboration, to be led by University of Newcastle researchers, world-renowned neurogastroenterologist, Distinguished Laureate Professor Nick Talley AC and Professor Simon Keely, will partner leading research expertise from a diverse range of disciplines.

What’s a cognobiome?

Professor Talley said ‘cognobiome’ was a term coined by the research team to describe the human, microbial and environmental interactions that affect cognitive performance.

“The term cognobiome describes our approach to analyse people’s gut microbiome and identify species that have a positive or negative effect on cognitive performance.

“Understanding how the structure and function of the gut microbiome is affected by common military stressors and how they influence cognitive performance will provide the opportunity to both predict microbiomes that are more susceptible, and resilient to, environmental change.”

Cognition involves processing or acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

“Cognition is, in essence, the ability to perceive and react, process and understand, store and retrieve information, make decisions and produce appropriate responses, which is vitally important for soldiers who are placed in stressful situations where they must make potentially life-threatening decisions in an instant,” Prof Talley said.

Microbiome: a delicate balance

Active soldiers face a range of environmental pressures likely to influence the microbiome, such as sleep deprivation, dehydration, caloric restrictions, excessive stress, pathogen exposure and physical exhaustion.

Pressures such as foreign deployment or intensive military training have been shown to impact the gut microbiome as well as increase gut permeability – leading to increased translocation of bacteria capable of inducing inflammatory responses and gut symptoms.

“Such responses have been linked to impaired cognitive performance, fatigue, disordered sleep and ‘brain fog’ that occur in gut disease, highlighting the need to maintain microbiome homeostasis among military personnel,” Professor Talley said.

The unique multidisciplinary research team has brought together Australia’s leading experts in gut health, the microbiome, immunology, psychology and cognition, aiming to reveal new information about the gut-brain connection.

The team includes University of Newcastle gut biology expert Professor Simon Keely, University of Newcastle microbiome expert Dr Emily Hoedt, University of Newcastle psychology experts Professor Scott Brown and Associate Professor Ami Eidels, Queensland University of Technology advanced molecular approaches and bioinformatics expert Professor Gene Tyson and Queensland University of Technology psychology expert Professor Ottmar Lipp.

Researchers will investigate the cognobiome in soldiers before, during and post intensive training programs, as well as during deployment.

Sequencing method

Leading sequencing method, metagenomics, will be employed by research project partner Microba to understand the makeup and function of soldiers’ gut microbiomes and identify bacteria linked with psychological performance and physiological response.

Paired with the company’s world-leading analysis platform, stool samples will be explored to identify key bacteria that could be used as the foundation of potential treatments.

Professor Talley said the team would identify associations between gut microbiome composition and cognitive performance, diet, sleep quality and serological markers of metabolism and inflammation to aid the development of targeted therapies applicable to a range of cohorts working under extreme pressures.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop interventions promoting resilience of the microbiome and preventing cognitive impairment in soldiers, which we hope will be applicable in a much broader context moving forward,” he said.

The project is funded by the Next Generation Technologies Fund.

*Professor Talley is a senior staff specialist at John Hunter Hospital. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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