We have long known that the gut microbiome—the trillions of organisms in our intestines that are composed of bacteria, viruses, and fungi—play an essential role in digestion and help the immune system attack harmful bacteria. But only recently have researchers discovered that the gut microbiome may also contribute to autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Laurie Cox, PhD, a fellow at the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in collaboration with immunologists, neuroscientists, microbiologists, and computational biologists, is spearheading an effort to investigate the connections between the gut and the brain.

Cox and her colleagues are already making significant progress. In one set of experiments, they discovered that low-dose penicillin alters the course of neurologic diseases in mice, with worse effects in males and better outcomes in females. They are now using DNA sequencing to investigate gender-based differences and to identify what role bacteria may play. In yet another study, investigators are comparing oral and gut bacteria of multiple sclerosis patients with individuals who do not have the disease. Because the microbiota can influence autoimmune diseases, these studies may identify new avenues for treatment and diagnosis. This work is only one example of how robust, interdisciplinary research is transforming medicine for patients who confront multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and brain tumors.