Our social decision-making can be influenced by the gut microbiota

Our social decision-making is influenced by psychological, political and other factors. However, researchers have discovered that there may be another force behind our social decision-making, namely the composition of the gut microbiome.

Researchers from the Paris Brain Institute and the University of Bonn found that changes in the gut microbiota can influence our sensitivity to fairness and the way we treat others.

Microorganisms influence behavior, cognition and brain function

The research, published in the journal PNAS Nexus, found mounting evidence for the role of the gut microbiome in the regulation of social-affective behavior in animals. However, whether and how the composition of the gut microbiome can influence social decision-making in health remains unknown.

Researchers tested the causal effects of a seven-week synbiotic (vs. placebo) dietary intervention on altruistic social punishment behavior in an ultimatum game. The results showed that the intervention increased participants’ willingness to forego a monetary payout when they were treated unfairly, the study said.

The gut microbiota found in the gastrointestinal tract play an important role in our digestive tract, but now their impact has been noticed beyond digestive function.

The intestinal ecosystem communicates with the central nervous system

Researchers maintained that microorganisms influence the behavior, cognition and brain function of their hosts.

“Available data suggest that the gut ecosystem communicates with the central nervous system through several pathways, including the vagus nerve,” says Hilke Plassmann (Sorbonne University, Insead), head of the Control-Interoception-Attention Team at the Paris Brain Institute.

“It could also use biochemical signals that trigger the release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are essential for proper brain function.”

Researchers recruited 101 participants

To take full advantage of this effect, the researchers recruited 101 participants. For seven weeks, 51 people took nutritional supplements with probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (nutrients that promote the colonization of bacteria in the intestines), while 50 others received a placebo.

According to Neuroscience News, they all took part in an ultimatum game during two sessions at the beginning and end of the supplementation period.

Researchers found that the group receiving the supplements rejected unequal offers after seven weeks. Even they rejected the unequal offers when the money was slightly out of balance.

But Plassmann believes it is too early to say that gut bacteria can make us less rational and more responsive to social considerations.

“However, these new results make it clear which biological pathways we should look at. The prospect of modulating the gut microbiota through diet to positively influence decision-making is fascinating. We must explore this path very carefully,” Plassmann concluded.


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Prabhat Ranjan Mishra An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Prabhat is a technology and defense journalist. While he enjoys writing about modern weapons and emerging technology, he has also covered global politics and business. He was previously associated with well-known media houses including International Business Times (Singapore Edition) and ANI.

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