Fecal transplants may be the 'fountain of youth' for cognitive function

Fecal transplants may be the 'fountain of youth' of cognitive function, researchers with the University of East Anglia have announced. The procedure, which is commonly used to treat C. diff infections in patients, has become the subject of interest in a number of studies involving gut bacteria and its potential role in human health. This latest study has found that transplanting the bacteria from older subjects to younger ones caused gut bacteria changes linked to a worsening of memory and learning.

A fecal transplant is exactly what it sounds like; the procedure involves acquiring a stool sample from a healthy subject and transplanting it into the unhealthy subject. The procedure is not without risk, but may be a promising way to treat certain dysfunctions related to gut bacteria. Many studies over recent years have linked healthy gut bacteria to overall health — and, unfortunately, it seems that this bacteria ages alongside us, changing as we get older.

Cognitive decline is, at this point in time, an inevitable consequence of getting older, but that may not be true in the future. Scientists are seeking ways to sustain or improve cognitive function in the aging population, helping these people retain their independence while delaying the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

The new study involved mice, not humans, and found that transplanting stool from older mice into younger mice caused a significant change in their gut bacteria. This change has a negative impact on cognitive functioning, with the researchers reporting a decrease in the rodents' memory and spatial learning.

One of the researchers behind the study, Dr. David Vauzour of the UEA's Norwich Medical School, explained:

The procedure had an impact on the expression of proteins involved in key functions of the hippocampus – an important part of the brain that has a vital role in a variety of functions including memory, learning but also in spatial navigation and emotional behaviour and mood. In short, the young mice began to behave like older mice, in terms of their cognitive function.

The findings stoke hope that reversing the procedure may have the opposite effect — that transplanting stool from young, healthy subjects to older subjects may cause beneficial changes in gut bacteria that reverse cognitive decline in subjects. Of course, studies will need to be conducted on this to determine whether such an effect takes place.