The microbiome-immune system link is established early on. Over the first year of life, bacteria populate the gut, which is largely sterile at birth, and the developing immune system learns which bacteria to consider normal residents of the body and which to attack as invaders. This early learning sets the stage for later immune responses to fluctuations in the microbiome’s composition.
When a normally scarce strain becomes too abundant or a pathogenic species joins the community of gut bacteria, the resulting response by the immune system can have wide-reaching effects. Depression has been linked with elevated levels of such molecules in some individuals, suggesting that treatments that alter the composition of the microbiome could alleviate symptoms of this disorder.Such an intervention could potentially be achieved using either prebiotics – substances that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria – or probiotics – live cultures of these bacteria. It is even possible that the microbiome could be manipulated by dietary changes.