Gut Flora and Cognition

You may already know this, but I was surprised to hear that the microbes living in an on our bodies outnumber our own cells 10 to 1 and collectively contain orders of magnitude more genetic information.  I guess that’s not necessarily saying much since the common potato has almost twice as many genes as a human.  There is actually a huge effort in the EU to sequence the DNA of the human microbiome called MetaHIT.

MetaHIT discovered that there are 3, err 2  distinct microbiome population types callled enterotypes.  One enterotype is dominated by the Bacteroides genus of microbes and is related to high fat or protein diets. This the one a lot of fat people have.  The Prevotella enterotype is characterized by high carb diets and I assume is related to better metabolic health.

Gut flora have been implicated in everything from  mood regulation to diabetes.  The fecal transplant stories are pretty freaky too.  This is a treatment for bacterial infections (primarily Clostridium difficile?) that involves transferring fecal matter from a healthy relative into the colon of a person desperately ill with a bacterial infection.  Once the gut flora is fixed, it takes care of the other bad bugs hanging around.  Some people also think there might be a connection between autism and gut flora problems.

I don’t want to get all Larry Smarr about it, but I am interested in getting my gut flora sequenced.  So I joined this study on the Genomera citizen science platform organized by the smart and cool Melanie SwanMicrobiome Profiling Response to Probiotic in a Healthy Cohort.  Here is the description:

Critical to digestive health, the microbiome is a newly available personal health data stream. Join this first-ever participant-organized citizen science microbiome project! Second Genome will provide microbiome sequencing to analyze potential shifts in the gut microbiome before and after 4 weeks of a daily dose of an OTC probiotic such asCulterelle® (Lactobacillus GG). A personalized report will be provided to each participant with the global shift in microbiome bacterial abundance by individual and study group, and a personalized profile of ratios pre and post intervention of Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Helicobacter pylori, and the most abundant 10-15 bacterial taxa at the phylogenetic family level (DRAFT of sample report). Human genetic SNPs related to Ulcerative Colitis andCrohn’s Disease are optionally requested to see if they may have a connection with microbiome profiles.

It’s $800 for the sequencing from Second Genome (which I hear is a good price) and I encourage anyone interested to join up.  We need more people to join before we can begin the study, so spread the word.  Check out Melanie’s blog when you get a chance, she covers a lot of QS, Futurist, and other modern topics.

Sorry, I know the title is Gut Flora and Cognition, but I don’t have much to say on that since the data isn’t in yet.  I suspect he work on mood or autism might pan out.  Those are cognitive things.  Also, I intend to recommend people track their cognitive performance with Quantified Mind during the probiotic study to see if this gut intervention makes you smarter or stupider.  Though I think that this article makes a good point when the author questions “the ability of a single strain of bacteria to impact on the vast inner ecosystem of the human gut.”  So a tiny dose of just a few strains of bacteria taken orally seems unlikely to have much impact.  Still, we shall see, we shall see.

Heart Rate Variability

From Wikipedia:

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a physiological phenomenon where the time interval between heart beats varies. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval.

It’s apparently healthier to have a larger HRV value which represents better “vagal tone.”  I understand that this is similar to the idea that a rubber band which is more elastic is less likely to snap.  This metric has been implicated as a measure of willpower, readiness for physical training, and even longevity.  So definitely sign me up for safe interventions to increase HRV.

I was first introduced to the idea of HRV by the biofeedback game “Wild Divine” which we purchased for my sister-in-law after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This game series has some questionable new age content, but I’m not totally against the idea of mindfulness training tied to HRV and GSR (Skin Conductance) biofeedback.  My friend Robin B.  was less forgiving of the idea when I showed it to him.   He suggested that coherent breathing should be a consequence of mindfulness not a path to it.

I was next exposed to HRV by Dave Asprey’s QS 2011 talk.   Asprey suggested that HRV training produces some physiological changes similar to those attributed to meditation.  I doubt that you can really extract an “active ingredient” from meditation, but I am pretty lazy so I am open to any shortcuts that might be available.  Asprey is a huckster, but his Bulletproof Exec site does showcase some interesting toys.  I am a bit skeptical about some of the personal performance science he promotes, but he doesn’t seem quite so full of shite as Timothy Ferriss.

HRV was brought up again at QS 2012 by Ronda Collier from Sweetwater Health who makes an HRV app called BeatHealthy.  Ronda gave a great explanation of HRV and told a funny story about how the HeartMath folks overdue the coherence monitoring by trying to stay coherent during rush hour traffic or during meetings.  Her view was that coherence is a training state that should not be maintained  throughout the day.

Most recently I started reading “the Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal.  I am reading this because Michael Kim recommended it during his Habit Design talk at QS 2012 conference this year.  I joined the Habit Design meetup and will be trying to install a more fault tolerant writing habit.  McGonigal says that HRV is a good index of willpower.  She claims that a quick way to build willpower is to slow your breathing:

Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.

McGonigal Ph.D., Kelly (2011-12-29). The Willpower Instinct (Kindle Locations 618-619). 

I have been doing HRV coherence exercises using the IOM Grapher in the “Healing Rhythms” software from Wild Divine.  This basically just involves reducing your breathe rate to between 4 and 6 breaths per minute.  I also ordered a Wahoo ANT+ heart rate monitor and I intend to start tracking HRV using the BeatHealthy app when it arrives.  Some athletes use HRV to determine if they are recovered enough to train that day, maybe I can use it to determine if I will have the will to write that day.  😉

Dual N-Back

I learned about dual n-back tasks the other day which have been shown to increase fluid intelligence (gF).
This site describes it well, and has an entry level test (only dual tests increase IQ):

This site is the best online site (close to the original protocol):

If you read the study, it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t matter how high you N value is.