Journalist: Amy Stewart
Amy: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Amy Stewart and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Arthi Chinna-Meyyappan, a PhD student in Neuroscience at Queen's University, who is doing some fascinating research regarding mental illness. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Arthi: No problem, thanks Amy and thank you SciSection for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Amy: To begin, tell us about your educational and career background.
Arthi: Of course, so I started doing my undergrad at Queen's University in Life Sciences, and then I went on to do my Master's in neuroscience and my PhD in neuroscience currently, so I'm still a PhD student right now, I'm in my second year. A little bit about my educational background, so I started working in research in my second year with Dr. Kathryn Hakrness and she's currently the head of the psychology department at Queen's University and we worked on some research for childhood maltreatment and depressive symptoms later on in your life. And then later on through Dr. Harkness, I met Dr. Milev who's my current supervisor who I did my master's with. And at the beginning actually I didn't really know what my project was going to be just that I wanted to work with Dr. and CAN-BIND which is the Canadian Biomarker Integrated Network in Depression. And then a month or so in I learned about my research project and an opportunity to work on a gut-brain axis treatment known as MET-2, which I'll explain to you a little bit later on as well. And that’s kind of how I got on to this current clinical trial that I'm working on with microbiome product known as MET-2 which is a repopulation therapy for the gut which we assume is going to help with depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms. So that’s a little bit about my educational and career background.
Amy: That is very cool. It seems like you got started in research very early on in your education. That's very impressive and I'm sure a lot of undergraduate students are hoping for the same. So right now you're working on research involving the link between the gut microbiome and mental illness, like you previously stated. Tell us what that means and who you got started in this area?
Arthi: Yeah so the gut brain axis, you probably hear this all the time and if you look up papers it's probably the first sentence of every paper. It’s a bidirectional signalling pathway, it's between our brain and our gut. And I don't know if you know but there's trillions of bacteria in our gut and they actually communicate with our brain through different links. So some links are neural, some are endocrine, and some are immune and we’re still kind of working at teasing out these links. So our gut microbiota are actually critical in the development of the immune system, our central nervous system, our GI functioning and our autonomic nervous system. So it's essentially an organ of its own if you want to think about it that way. And studies have shown that gut microbiota play this vital role in regulating aspects of brain development and function and basically what we do is were trying to figure out in disease or stressed states when these pathways become compromised, it causes intestinal dysbiosis, changes in mood, changes in behavior, changes in cognition, even changes in inflammatory levels. As you can imagine if you're in a diseased or stressed state, sometimes your gut isn't doing so well. And my project, what we do is we look at a product called MET-2 which is 40 different strains of bacteria and we're trying to see when we repopulate the gut with this healthy bacteria because the reason that they're in diseased and stressed state we assume is because the bacteria are not healthy. If that causes an improvement in depressive and anxiety symptoms because of the links that I mentioned with the neural, the endocrine, the immune system. MET-2 is supposed to be a safer alternative to fecal microbiota transplant. Fecal microbiota transplants right now is also really big in this field of research. But MET-2 is meant to be less invasive and less costly because you're not taking direct raw fecal material. And it's also an oral administration rather than through an endoscopy. And currently in my research I'm doing a placebo control trial, so comparing MET-2 for depressive symptoms to a placebo alternative, of course the participants in the trial don't know if they're receiving a placebo or MET-2 and neither do I as it’s a double blind study. The idea is that the repopulation of the gut bacteria is going to improve depressive symptoms and significantly more than it does with a placebo alternative. As we know the placebo does have like around a 30% improvement rate, so we want to make sure that the participants are improving by 40-50% at the very least, 50% being what we consider responders to the treatment. And that's kind of my PhD project. The reason that I got involved with this PhD project or how I got involved with it, is through my master's project. So the company that we work with that makes MET-2 is called Mibiota and they provided us a little bit of funding for my master's project to just test it in a small population and to see if it works at all with participants with depression and anxiety. And so we tried it in those participants and we actually found a significant improvement in majority of the participants, but again like I said placebo improvement is quite high in depressive populations, so we wanted to see if this is due to placebo effect or if it's because of MET2. So that gives you a little bit of an idea of my research, the gut-brain axis and how I got involved with my current trial.
Amy: That is fascinating. It makes total sense that something that is so closely intertwined with our endocrine system and our hormones would have such a profound effect on our brain. But I feel like people's minds don’t go directly to the bacteria in your gut, that’s a very cool research project you're working on. My next question is, what are some of your most significant findings from your research that you haven't already stated and are there any applications in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness?
Arthi: Yeah so the research I mentioned already from my masters, we did find significant improvement in depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms but also in sleep, which is pretty closely linked to depressive symptoms and we're not really sure actually what comes first in some situations as well, is it poor sleep or is it depression, same thing with is it a poor gut or depression. It's kind of interesting to see all these different links. We also recently did a systematic review on fecal transplants for psychiatric symptoms. A couple of the students in my lab, and we found that all the studies show a decrease in depressive and anxiety-like symptoms and behaviors and this is as a result of the transplantation of healthy microbiota. So this is not quite my research particularly but it's all the research that’s out there on fecal microbiota transplantation. And the opposite was also found with depressive and anxiety symptoms and behaviours that are being transferred from transplanting the microbiota from a psychiatrically ill donor - so like an unhealthy microbiota to a healthy mouse. And they found that the mouse was actually exhibiting depressive symptoms. So this is some cool research that’s going on right now, now we're going to try to figure out the mechanism behind these improvements, and to be honest what exactly is a healthy microbiome, that’s something we're trying to figure out. I don't think we're quite at the level of diagnosing based on gut microbiome composition, maybe you'll need to find what a healthy microbiome is. But I do think probiotics and prebiotics - which are compounds that you can find in food that will help the growth and activity of good microorganisms like bacteria and fungi - can actually be used to maintain healthy microbiome to prevent chronic mental illness so not so much diagnosis but as a prevention method. But again we need a lot more research in this field before we can say anything for certain. And then more chronic cases, I think also like transplanting bacteria from a healthy donor may reset the gut and prevent ongoing chronic illness. I also think in the future it’s a great path for developing personalized treatment, which is where my interest kind of comes in for psychiatric illness. I'm not sure if you’re familiar but with depression it looks very different in different individuals, you can have a young girl with anhedonia or loss of interest in things whose losing weight because they don't have an appetite and not sleeping as much, and you can have an older male who is oversleeping, overeating, has a really crappy, depressed mood, and both of them technically have the diagnosis of major depressive disorder, so how can we treat both of them with the exact same product, which currently the first line treatments are antidepressant. So analyzing the microbiome before treating and supplementing the patient with the necessary healthy bacteria might be a good way to get started, but I don't think we're quite there yet. And that’s why I'm quite interested in this field because it's pretty up and coming and there's a lot more room for moving forward.
Amy: Wow that is very neat, the idea that you said that it’s a good potential for personalized treatments is fascinating. And I think that'll be so awesome in a field that deals with so many diverse people with so many different backgrounds, I think personalized treatments are definitely needed in treating mental illnesses. My next question is, what advice would you give to undergrad students who want to get involved in research?
Arthi: So something I would say is try all kinds of things, meet different people from different fields, because you can't possibly know what's interesting to you if you haven't heard of it. I think it can be a tricky thing and finding a balance is key, so you want to stay focused and not be pulled in too many directions, which I struggle with. But you also want to keep learning new things, so again this is something I'm working on, check with me in a few years and see how it's going for me. But research is so versatile, there's so many different opportunities out there and oftentimes people confuse getting into research with directly becoming a professor. While that’s one amazing route to go into, it's a tough option and there are so many other options out there, and people go into law, and consulting, in to medicine, public health, pharmaceuticals, they start working for start-ups ,and investigating new therapies, there's just endless options if you look for them. So I'd say if I were to go back and give myself advice as an undergraduate student, that’s what I would say, look in all directions and don't limit yourself.
Amy: That is very good advice, I feel like often students have a very one track mind about trying to get all this experience in so many different types of research and it can be very overwhelming, so I think you're right focusing on just a few passionate projects that you have is probably the best way to go about it. For my last question, what area of neuroscience and psychiatry do you think needs further investigation?
Arthi: I would say the innovative and unconventional treatments. So we do some exciting work with CAN-BIND, the Canadian Biomarker Integration Network in Depression I mentioned earlier. All across Canada investigating novel, unconventional treatments, particularly like ketamine, brain stimulation, music therapy, things like that. And some other investigators around the world are also doing work with cannabis and psilocybin at the moment and while I agree with you antidepressants have been life changing for a lot of individuals, I think that given the neuropsychiatric illness like I mentioned before looks so different in each affected individual, we need to explore a variety of options and I'm really excited to be apart of this era and beginning to investigate all these unconventional and honestly in some cases effective - based on limited trails, obviously - treatments. But yeah, that I'd say is probably the area we need to kind of move into and it's been kind of hindered a little bit by I think stigma. But I think that we a removing forward in that direction and that’s an area I'm excited for and I think needs a little more investigation.
Amy: That’s very interesting. It definitely goes along with what you're doing in your research, how individuals with different presenting mental illnesses definitely need different ways to treat it, it can't all be treated with one way for every single person. That is very cool.
Arthi: Exactly, yeah.
Amy: Well thank you so much for joining us Arthi, your research is so fascinating and is bound to have a great impact on the treatment of mental illnesses. I'm glad you could come on the show today and share it with the science community.
Arthi: No problem, thanks for having me Amy.
Amy: That’s it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.