Gut Health Critical to Soldier On

by Justin Burke

At the same time as “gut health” became a buzzword in popular culture, a group of scientists was thinking about what it could mean for the Australian Defence Force.

“The wellbeing of our personnel is a critical foundation on which their performance depends. We want them to be able to out-think an adversary, we want them to be more resilient, and we need them to be healthy in very extreme conditions,” says Nicholas Beagley, research leader in Human Systems Performance at Defence Science and Technology Group. “These are healthy individuals in large part, but we are routinely placing them under conditions that can produce quite unique stressors. We’re pursuing multiple investigations to understand how we can stabilise and optimise their performance. The so-called cognobiome emerged as one of those areas where we saw real opportunity.”

The cognobiome first featured in the Emerging Disruptive Technology Assessment Symposium (EDTAS) held in Adelaide in 2018. Under the aegis of the DSTG’s Human Performance Research
Network, a preliminary study was done by Swinburne University, before a larger project was inaugurated with the University of Newcastle, QUT and others, and supported by the Next Generation Technologies Justin Burke Fund with $3.5m across four years. Simon Keely is professor of the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy at the University of Newcastle. He says that the gut, which shares a lot of the types of cells that make up the brain, and in some cases actually produces more of the signalling molecules than the brain does, is now often referred to as the “second brain”. “The idea of a link between a healthy gut and a healthy mind has been gaining profile for a long time now. For example, the phenomenon of so-called brain fog among those suffering coeliac disease is well known. In rural areas without easy access to gastroenterologists, they’ve done studies using cognitive testing platforms on computers to diagnose gut flare ups. So that link has been really well established,” Keely says. “It’s only probably more recently as we’ve begun to understand the ecology of the gut and the microbes and all interactions that we now think it’s a bidirectional signalling pathway whereby the individual’s health affects their microbiome vice versa. It’s really interesting.”

A key area is understanding the interaction of the microbiome, stress, and the ability to respond properly to a cue. It has mainly been studied thus far in mice and rats. “But that’s obviously very, very relevant to a war fighter; the ability to recognise and respond with an action that they’ve been trained to do,” says Keely.

Gene Tyson is a professor at QUT and director of the Centre of Microbiome Research. He says while 400-500 academic papers are being published per month that mention the gut microbiome, military personnel are an interesting but understudied subgroup of the population. “I think it’s the unique stressors on the military cohort – sleep deprivation, dehydration, caloric restriction,
excessive stress, exposure to pathogens, and physical exhaustion – that makes this a really amazing opportunity to understand the link between the gut microbiome and cognitive performance,” Tyson says. “One of the unique things that’s happened over the last five years is where we’ve seen dramatic changes in our ability to be able to reconstruct the genomes of the organisms that live in our gut. We’re using advanced statistic approaches and machine learning to be able to coalesce down into a list of organisms that we believe are primarily responsible for the cognitive performance changes. “That’s clinically useful for us to be able to design and generate a new generation of probiotics and prebiotics. These aren’t going to be products you can buy off the shelf at Chemist Warehouse, that’s for sure.”

The team’s insights could also inform DSTG’s work at the nutrition and food science research area at Scottsdale in Tasmania, which was established in 1954. “At our facilities at Scottsdale we’re looking at all of those traditional aspects of military nutrition, such as how you logistically support the best quality food for prolonged periods under all sorts of conditions,” says DSTG’s Beagley. “But that team is connected with this cognobiome study too. Maybe we will be able to predict those warfighters who are cognitively sensitive to particular feeding conditions or maybe we can find mitigation measures that might protect them based on the makeup of their microbiome.”


This text was originally published in The Australian.