New Study Connects Diaper Contents to Brain Development

“Poopy brain!” your child yells at his little sister. Before sending the tyke to time-out for having a potty mouth, he may be onto something. Of course not literally, but a new study from University of North Carolina School of Medicine is finding connections between the yucky mess found in your child’s diaper to their future cognitive abilities. This isn’t to say you should study every lump and color (sorry, TMI) of your child’s fecal masterpiece, but know a scientist does.

The first year of a child’s life is critical in not only brain development but gut establishment as well. Looking for a possible connection between the two, Ph.D. Rebecca Knickmeyer, an associate professor of psychiatry, and a team of colleagues from the UNC, decided to take a closer look at the bacteria found in dirty diapers.

First, the team took fecal samples from nearly a hundred one-year-olds. A year later, using the same group of children, they conducted a series of cognitive tests that measured fine and gross motor skills along with perceptual abilities and language development.

Before I tell you the results, let’s review a quick science lesson about the microscopic powerhouses called microbes.

Microbes are in the world around us and within your body. In fact, your gut holds massive amounts; we’re talking trillions, of microbes that live in a little community called a microbiome.

While some microbes, bacteria or viruses, get a bad rap, overall these tiny creatures do more good than harm, by breaking down the food you eat to detoxifying your body and warding off stress.

What they found was vastly different compared to their hypotheses. “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,” says Knickmeyer.

In the end, what are we learning? Alex Carlson, an MD/Ph.D. student in Knickmeyer’s lab and first author of the research, says that while there is a lot more tests needed to be done before suggesting that everyone take a particular probiotic to create more healthy bacteria, there are some key things for sure. These results are opening up more areas for testing including the effect these tiny creatures may have on the emergence of social skills and anxiety. Also, how we may be able to guide the development of your microbiome to help diminish cognitive and language problems in children.

Knickmeyer concludes that “How you guide that development is an open question because we have to understand what the individual’s microbiome is and how to shift it. And this is something the scientific community is just beginning to work on.”