3 June 2021

In the current study, Radboudumc and Donders Institute researchers Mirjam Bloemendaal, Joanna Szopinska-Tokov, Alejandro Arias Vasquez and Esther Aarts have shown that the gut microbiota is involved in the protecting effects of probiotics on cognitive performance in acute stress circumstances. Their results are published in Translational Psychiatry, on May 20th 2021​.

Probiotics are living microorganisms intended to have health benefits when consumed in sufficient amounts. The use of probiotics can be advised for example when using antibiotics, aiming to protect and maintain a healthy and diverse community of gut bacteria, called the gut microbiota. Besides the role of the gut microbiota in intestinal health, awareness of their important role in mental health has increased. Hence, probiotics may – amongst others through their influence on the gut microbiota - prevent mood and stress-related symptoms. This premise was tested in the current study, in a collaboration between the Departments of Human Genetics, Psychiatry and Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging.

Healthy female subjects used a multi-strain probiotics (Winclove Probiotics) for 28 days in a randomized controlled trial (probiotics group n=27, placebo group n=29). The subjects also performed cognitive testing (working memory) after a stress inducing procedure, which included holding their hands in ice water for 3 minutes. As expected, this stress procedure negatively affected their cognitive performance, yet this negative effect was reduced in the subjects supplemented with probiotics.

They hypothesized that probiotic use changes in gut microbiota community and that these changes relate to the reduced negative effect of stress on cognition. Indeed, they found that probiotics influenced the gut microbiota composition, and these changes were related to the effects on cognitive performance after stress. Subjects with a higher increase in the relative abundance of the bacterial genus Ruminococcaceae_UCG-003, after using probiotics, were also the ones that were more protected from negative effects of stress on cognition. Ruminococcaceae_UCG-003 is a bacterium producing short-chain-fatty-acids, known for its beneficial effect on gut and brain health.

This study shows that the gut microbiota is involved in the protecting effects of probiotics on cognitive performance in acute stress circumstances. Building on these results, this type of non-pharmacological interventions might aid in the treatment of mental health problems.


Bloemendaal M et al. Probiotics-induced changes in gut microbial composition and its effects on cognitive performance after stress: exploratory analyses. Transl Psychiatry 2021; 11: 300.

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