RMIT University research groups examine gut-brain links

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Each year, 15 million babies worldwide are born preterm – before the 37th week of gestation.

But due to advances in healthcare, survival rates are higher than ever.

Yet early birth can be damaging in many ways, disrupting the growth of the baby’s vital organs that would usually occur during the final stages of pregnancy.

Preterm birth increases the likelihood of lifelong changes in growth and development, such as cerebral palsy, impaired cognitive function, and autism spectrum disorder.

RMIT’s Neurodevelopment in Health and Disease research program focuses on healthy brain development and the early origins of neurological disease.

“Many of us are investigating health issues relevant to children born too soon, related either to risk factors linked to preterm birth or to long-term health issues resulting from it,” said Professor David Walker, Program Leader.

Associate Professor Elisa Hill-Yardin’s research group is conducting preclinical research on the gut-brain axis and how it relates to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, a risk for children born preterm.

“Complications occurring as the baby’s brain develops can have implications for gut function, including abdominal pain and discomfort, and lead to alternating constipation and diarrhoea in disorders such as autism,” Hill-Yardin said.

“There is evidence that improving gut health could reduce the severity of these issues.

“We aim to better understand the brain-gut interactions and their impact on gut contraction patterns and permeability to identify biological targets and find therapies to improve the quality of life for people with neurodevelopmental disorders.”