Scientists Study the Complex Roles of Gases in Our Bodies

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We like the idea that our being is divided into two parts: body and mind. But the more we learn about our biology, the more we see that the borders between the two are permeable, if not outright imaginary. Take gases, for instance. A new study shows how the gases swirling inside our bodies can power our brains and affect the way we act. The paper was published in the journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease

Our body parts are constantly in flux, working and changing in a very active ecosystem. They need fuel to stay active. For your nervous system, this means the chemicals called neurotransmitters, which help communicate impulses from one nerve cell to another. Those neurotransmitters take a number of different forms—including gases.

Some gaseous neurotransmitters (or gasotransmitters) are produced by your organs and tissues. Others—such as nitric oxide (NO), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), methane (CH4), hydrogen (H2), and ammonia (NH3)—are the products of fermentation in your gut by microscopic organisms like bacteria. These tiny molecules feed and help regulate your cells and those of the microbes living inside you—complex relationships that can have much larger consequences.

Image credit: The Lomonosov Moscow State University

NO, for example, is a favorite food of the E. coli bacteria that live in your gut. The more stress your body is under, the more NO it makes, which means that E. coli stands to gain quite a bit by stirring up trouble in your body. 

Like your microbiome (the ecosystem of microbes in and on your body), these gases serve us best when they and their fuel sources are balanced. Studies in mice have shown that a deficiency of NO-producing enzymes can lead to increased sexual activity and depression, while not having enough H2S may trigger seizures and other neurological disorders. 

The review study’s lead author Alexander Oleskin is a biologist at Lomonosov Moscow State University. “Prospectively the research findings will be implemented in medical and psychiatric practice,” he said in a press statement. In the future, he says, doctors could use probiotics to encourage the growth of gas-producing or gas-consuming bacteria.

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