When we think about mental health, we often think of the brain in our heads. But what about what some refer to as our second brain – the gut? Could changes to the trillions of microorganisms in the gut affect our emotions? And could studying the gut lead to new treatments for depression?

Dr. Caroline Ménard, an up-and-coming researcher from Quebec City, is on a quest to find these answers.

Recently awarded a 2019 Azrieli Future Leader in Canadian Brain Research grant from Brain Canada, a funding opportunity intended for high-potential ideas from the next generation of brilliant investigators, Dr. Ménard’s work focuses on developing a better understanding of the neurobiology behind stress, stress responses and stress resilience.

“Everybody is stressed, so it’s a great topic,” said Dr. Ménard when asked what led her to pursue her research on stress. “Before, we thought it was all about the brain, but now we know that there are also stress responses throughout the whole body.”

By mimicking a variety of stress types in animal models, such as social, unpredictable, or early life stress, Dr. Ménard and her team at Université Laval have found that it is not only the brain that remembers stressful experiences. Biological changes can also occur within blood vessels, the immune system and even in the gut.

According to Dr. Ménard, people who are depressed will have a less diverse gut bacteria population, causing more inflammation to be circulated within the body. While inflammation is a natural immune reaction to protect the body from threats, it can trigger an effect on a person’s stress response and emotions as well.

Inflammation is also present in several brain diseases, making people more vulnerable to depression. According to Dr. Ménard, the prevalence of depression in the general population is about 6 per cent, but up to 50 per cent for people having experienced a stroke, and 30-40 per cent for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“We think the endocannabinoid system, a system that is really involved in both the brain and also the gut, could be a good target to better understand the mind-brain-gut connection,” explains Dr. Ménard. “Most of the treatments for mood disorder or depression are centered around the brain, but by targeting other systems that not only affect the brain but also the gut, inflammation and the immune system, we could open the door to new treatments.”

With a growing number of people affected by depression, effective and novel solutions are becoming increasingly critical, according to Dr. Ménard. Considering the brain and the body together can lead to innovative discoveries for not only treating depression, but for any neurodegenerative disease where depression is an underlying condition.

“We need to think outside the box and not just about the brain. The whole body reacts to stress so we should study stress using a whole-body approach to improve the health of patients struggling with depression and the effects it has on their families,” she said.

So how does a neuroscientist studying stress maintain a healthy brain?

“Everybody has their own recipe to lower stress. One trick I use whenever you have a long day, is to just take 15 minutes for yourself, put on some headphones and dance!”

Dr. Caroline Ménard is one of 20 future leaders working to unlock the secrets of the brain. Her research has been made possible with the financial support of Health Canada, through the Canada Brain Research Fund, an innovative partnership between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada) and Brain Canada, and of the Azrieli Foundation. By funding bright research projects at the early stages of a scientist’s career, Brain Canada is establishing the country’s pipeline of future leaders and driving innovation.

Visit braincanada.ca for more information on brain research in Canada.

To meet all 20 of the 2019 Azrieli Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research.

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