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Getting Cultured

Healthy bacteria can help fight depression or anxiety

March 2024

Story courtesy of UVA Health

University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers have discovered how Lactobacillus, a bacterium found in fermented foods and yogurt, helps the body manage stress and may help prevent depression and anxiety.

The findings open the door to new therapies to treat anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

The new research from UVA’s Alban Gaultier, Ph.D., and collaborators is notable because it pinpoints the role of Lactobacillus, separating it from all the other microorganisms that naturally live in and on our bodies. These organisms are collectively known as the microbiota, and scientists have increasingly sought to target them to battle disease and improve human health. UVA’s new research represents a major step forward in that effort, providing scientists with an innovative new approach to understanding the role of individual microbes that could facilitate the development of new treatments and cures for a wide variety of diseases, both mental and physical.

“Our discovery illuminates how gut-resident Lactobacillus influences mood disorders by tuning the immune system,” says Gaultier, of UVA’s Department of Neuroscience, the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia.

“Our research could pave the way toward discovering much-needed therapeutics for anxiety and depression.”


Our digestive systems are home to countless bacteria, fungi and viruses. There are more microorganisms living in and on us than there are cells in our bodies. That may sound alarming, but scientists have increasingly realized that these tiny organisms are a good thing.

Their endless interactions are critical to our immune systems’ health, our mental health, and many other facets of our well-being. Researchers have been hugely excited in recent years about the potential to battle diseases by targeting the microbiota.

Gaultier and his team took an innovative approach, homing in on Lactobacilli specifically. “We were aware from our prior research that Lactobacillus was beneficial in improving mood disorders and was lost following psychological stress, but the underlying reasons remained unclear, primarily due to the technical challenges associated with studying the microbiome,” he says.

Gaultier and his team decided to continue their depression research using a collection of bacteria, known as altered Schaedler flora, which includes two strains of Lactobacillus and six other bacterial strains. Through research, Gaultier and his colleagues were able to explain exactly how Lactobacilli influence behavior, and how a lack of the bacteria can worsen depression and anxiety.


Armed with this information, researchers are now poised to develop new ways to prevent and treat depression and other mental health conditions in which Lactobacillus plays an important role. For example, patients struggling with (or at risk for) depression might one day take specially formulated probiotic supplements that will optimize their levels of helpful Lactobacillus.

“With these results in hand, we have new tools to optimize the development of probiotics, which should speed up discoveries for novel therapies,” says researcher Andrea R. Merchak, Ph.D. “Most importantly, we can now explore how maintaining a healthy level of Lactobacillus and/or interferon-gamma could be investigated to prevent and treat anxiety and depression.”