February 10, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 89—Effects of the pandemic, and gut bacteria

A new study by Indiana University finds that women, younger individuals, those with lower levels of formal education, and people of color are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, led by sociologists Bernice Pescosolido and Brea Perry, found that Black adults were three times as likely as whites to report food insecurity, being laid off, or being unemployed during the pandemic. Additionally, residents without a college degree were twice as likely to report food insecurity (compared to those with some college) while those not completing high school are four times as likely to report it, compared to those with a bachelor’s degree. These patterns persisted even after taking into account employment status and financial hardship before the pandemic, suggesting that the gap between the "haves" and "have nots" is being widened by the crisis. Pescosolido says it is clear that the pandemic has had an extraordinary impact on the economic security of individuals who were already vulnerable and among disadvantaged groups. This work, she says, demonstrates the need for strategically deployed relief efforts and longer-term policy reforms to challenge the unequal impact of disasters. Researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 Indiana residents before mandated stay-at-home orders and during the initial stay at home order. They measured four self-reported indicators of economic precarity: housing insecurity, food insecurity, general financial insecurity, and unemployment or job loss. They found that Indiana residents already concerned with their housing, food, and finances reported greater concerns with these economic hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perry says providing basic resources to all Americans, such as generous unemployment benefits, paid family leave, affordable federal housing and universal preschool will help communities better weather crisis. We need to rethink how we intervene in disasters and strengthen the social safety net for everyone, she says.

In other news, child neglect continues to plague children in the United States. According to the most recent data, in 2017, approximately 675,000 children in the U.S. were victims of mistreatment, with 75% reported as neglected. For children, the early postnatal months are critical to ensure proper physical and psychological development. Bill Sullivan, a pharmacologist and microbiologist at the IU School of Medicine, says emerging research is uncovering a clear role for microbiota — the microbes that live on and inside another organism – in the proper development of newborns, including humans. Sullivan has spent his career studying parasitic microbes and their effect on behavior. Our intestines are populated by trillions of bacteria, which are first introduced into the body by the mother during birth. Mice are frequently used by scientists to gain insights into potential functions the microbiota may have in humans. By feeding them high doses of antibiotics, or by birthing them using sterile techniques, researchers can create “germ-free” mice that lack microbiota. Sullivan says germ-free mice grow more slowly and suffer from a number of immune system deficits and social behavior issues. In addition to helping digest food and manufacture nutrients, a newborn’s gut bacteria regulate production of insulin-like growth factor 1, a crucial growth hormone and that promotes proper development of bone and tissues. Sullivan says that a new study performed at the Salk Institute shows, for the first time, that a mouse mother’s microbiota can impact her behavior in a way that can be detrimental to her pups. The findings, he says, lend further support to the gut-brain axis, which refers to the complex array of chemical signals that microbiota in the gut send to the brain. Different species of intestinal bacteria produce different chemical signals, which contributes to the variations in behavior observed between individuals. Evidence that the gut-brain axis can also influence child-rearing underscores the importance of microbiota across generations. While more research is needed, Sullivan says it now appears that optimal infant care requires more than the baby’s diet; future research should consider the composition of mother’s microbiota as well. Doctors commonly agree that a healthy microbiota can be cultivated through a sensible diet that includes plentiful fiber and fermented foods, along with regular exercise.