Baby Poop May Determine Cognitive Performance


Dirty diapers are not what most would consider a scientific phenomenon. For parents everywhere, it is not exactly something they would spend time studying.

However, those dirty diapers may hold more than meets the eye. According to some scientists, the bacteria in a baby’s poop can determine their cognitive function at a later age.

Credit: Amy Riddle/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

A new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry has stated that the bacteria in a baby’s fecal matter can predict how well they will eventually perform on cognitive tests. The more diverse the microbiome, the more likely the child was to perform highly on cognitive testing when they reached the age of two. Almost 100 one-year old children were tested, from which researchers saw the bacterial genus Bacteroides was associated with better test scores.

“The big story here is that we’ve got one group of kids with a particular community of bacteria that’s performing better on these cognitive tests,” said Rebecca Knickmeyer. “This is the first time an association between microbial communities and cognitive development has been demonstrated in humans.”

Related: Canada’s ‘Poop Lady’ on Gut Health – It’s All in the Stool

Knickmeyer is a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine; she led the experiment in her lab. She and her team tie their findings to the gut-brain axis, which has been supported by past research, tying the brain’s cognitive function to gut health.

Knickmeyer and her team collected poop samples from 89 one-year-olds, and identified the bacteria. After a year had passed, these same children were given cognitive tests and brain scans. While findings were limited that could connect the microbial communities to their brain volume, there was a connection between the diversity of the microbiome and their cognitive score. When a child had a stronger presence of Bacteroides, they performed better.

“The latter result was quite surprising,” Knickmeyer said in a statement. “We had originally predicted that children with highly diverse microbiomes would perform better — since other studies have shown that low diversity in infancy is associated with negative health outcomes, including type 1 diabetes and asthma. Our work suggests that an ‘optimal’ microbiome for cognitive and psychiatric outcomes may be different than an ‘optimal’ microbiome for other outcomes.”

Related: Baby Foods Contain a Significant Amount of Lead – Report

While it does seem that the bacteria does have an effect, it is not yet known how the microbiome is truly communicating with the baby’s brain during development. Knickmeyer states that they are working on establishing this connection, if it does exist. They are examining the pathways which may be involved, and also wish to determine if the “optimal microbiome” for cognitive development is still optimal for other health aspects. For example, past research has stated that a less diverse microbiome may be connected with a higher risk of asthma and diabetes.

While this study is preliminary, the issue of gut health remains of high importance. Starting from a young age — even just one year old — it can be a great benefit to consume probiotics and establish a healthy gut.