Early life adversity predicts brain-gut alterations associated with increased stress and mood

Neurobiol Stress. 2021 May 25;15:100348. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2021.100348. eCollection 2021 Nov.


Alterations in the brain-gut system have been implicated in various disease states, but little is known about how early-life adversity (ELA) impacts development and adult health as mediated by brain-gut interactions. We hypothesize that ELA disrupts components of the brain-gut system, thereby increasing susceptibility to disordered mood. In a sample of 128 healthy adult participants, a history of ELA and current stress, depression, and anxiety were assessed using validated questionnaires. Fecal metabolites were measured using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry-based untargeted metabolomic profiling. Functional brain connectivity was evaluated by magnetic resonance imaging. Sparse partial least squares-discriminant analysis, controlling for sex, body mass index, age, and diet was used to predict brain-gut alterations as a function of ELA. ELA was correlated with four gut-regulated metabolites within the glutamate pathway (5-oxoproline, malate, urate, and glutamate gamma methyl ester) and alterations in functional brain connectivity within primarily sensorimotor, salience, and central executive networks. Integrated analyses revealed significant associations between these metabolites, functional brain connectivity, and scores for perceived stress, anxiety, and depression. This study reveals a novel association between a history of ELA, alterations in the brain-gut axis, and increased vulnerability to negative mood and stress. Results from the study raise the hypothesis that select gut-regulated metabolites may contribute to the adverse effects of critical period stress on neural development via pathways related to glutamatergic excitotoxicity and oxidative stress.

Keywords: Anxiety/depression; Brain functional connectivity; Brain-gut microbiome; CNS, central nervous system; ELA, early life adversity; Early life adversity; Glutamatergic excitotoxicity; PLS-DA, partial least squares discriminant analysis; Perceived stress; RMS, root mean squared.