Gut instinct: Lumen Scholar’s research explores the link between the brain and the microbiome of the gut 

Alex Ball ’17 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.  

Research that Elon Lumen Scholar Alex Ball ’18 is now pursuing could provide more insight into how matters of the head are influenced by the biology of the gut.

It might seem an unlikely connection to those not familiar with what’s called the “gut-brain axis,” but for Ball and his mentor, Associate Professor of Biology Jen Uno, that connection is key to how the intestinal microbiome impacts behavior, neurological function and brain development. “What has really fascinated me is the emerging connection between the bacteria of the gut and the autism spectrum,” Ball said.

“What I’m looking at now is how the bacteria in our gut influences serotonin levels in the brain, and how that influences brain development and behavior.”

That fascination has taken Ball from the San Francisco area where he grew up to Elon, where he’s pursuing a degree in biochemistry while working on his Lumen Prize project with Uno. As a recipient of the Lumen Prize, Ball received a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative endeavors. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Ball said he was initially drawn to Elon because it is one of the few universities that allows him to pursue a degree in biochemistry while also participating in study abroad. His life has been filled with travel, having lived in Singapore as a child and traveled throughout Europe during his younger years.

“I thought studying abroad would be a great opportunity for me, and add to my experience here at Elon,” said Ball, who studied abroad in New Zealand during his junior year. It is in New Zealand that Alex took a virology course that inspired his postgraduate plans to eventually work on vaccine development.

In the Elon lab, Ball wanted to focus his research on the gut microbiome — a complex bacterial ecosystem present in the digestive tract of animals. These friendly microbes, collectively called the intestinal microbiome, cause neither harm nor disease. After learning about the role of serotonin in brain chemistry, Ball decided to develop a Lumen project that explored the link between the two — how the bacteria of the gut microbiome impacts serotonin production and the chemical’s potential role in Autism Spectrum Condition.

Seratonin is a neurotransmitter, and while it is not always associated with the gut, more than 90 percent of serotonin is made in the intestines, Ball said. Uno, who has conducted extensive research on the gut microbiome, said that Ball was fascinated by the potential link between the gut and autism, and saw an opportunity to research a connection between the two through serotonin.

“It really was an idea that was born from him and his research, that he was able to develop by digging into the literature,” Uno said. “His work ethic is amazing. He hears about new things, and if it’s something he wants to do, he’s not shy about pursuing it.”

To explore this connection, Ball has been working in the lab with populations of zebrafish, portions of which are administered antibiotics that impact the bacterial populations in the gut microbiome. He’s been looking for evidence that changes in that microbiome are producing changes in serotonin and ultimately the social nature of the fish — namely he examines the zebrafish swimming patterns to determine whether they continue to swim close to one another in schools, or begin to exhibit less social behavior by swimming further away from each other.

The bacterial communities in the gastrointestinal tracts and the serotonin levels of the brains are examined to see what connection there is between the makeup of the gut and the chemistry of the brain.

“The Lumen Prize is so valuable because it gives a student like Alex the chance to develop a project from the ground up,” Uno said. “I am very big on my students being able to take ownership of their ideas and their projects, and Alex has been able to do that. He has brought such a sense of enthusiasm and persistence to the lab. Anytime you tackle a scientific question, you have to be willing to deal with the pitfalls as well as the successes, Alex has dealt with both impressively.”

Ball said so far he’s collected some “interesting behavioral data” with the size of the schools of zebrafish that have received a particular antibiotic increasing over time, indicating that their social behaviors, and perhaps brain chemistries, are changing. Ball participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences in 2017, and looking ahead to the spring, is planning to present his work at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego.

Beyond his work in the lab, Uno said that Ball has been a tireless advocate for science education. As president of the American Chemical Society chapter on campus, Alex and his fellow chemistry and biochemistry majors teamed up with Elon’s Village Project to do some fun experiments with local Burlington kids. He’s built upon his love for travel and international connections as a member of the International Living & Learning Community during his first year at Elon where he worked extensively with a local refugee family.

Ball is in the process of applying to graduate school to pursue his doctorate in biochemistry with the long-term goal of working to develop new vaccines. “I’ve been fascinated by the complex battle between the immune system and viruses, and the arms race they have,” Ball said. “I’m hoping to be able to use science to improve the quality of the world.” 

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