The role of the commensal microbiota in adaptive and maladaptive stressor-induced immunomodulation

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Over the past decade, it has become increasingly evident that there are extensive bidirectional interactions between the body and its microbiota. These interactions are evident during stressful periods, where it is recognized that commensal microbiota community structure is significantly changed. Many different stressors, ranging from early life stressors to stressors administered during adulthood, lead to significant, community-wide differences in the microbiota. The mechanisms through which this occurs are not yet known, but it is known that commensal microbes can recognize, and respond to, mammalian hormones and neurotransmitters, including those that are involved with the physiological response to stressful stimuli. In addition, the physiological stress response also changes many aspects of gastrointestinal physiology that can impact microbial community composition. Thus, there are many routes through which microbial community composition might be disrupted during stressful periods. The implications of these disruptions in commensal microbial communities for host health are still not well understood, but the commensal microbiota have been linked to stressor-induced immunopotentiation. The role of the microbiota in stressor-induced immunopotentiation can be adaptive, such as when these microbes stimulate innate defenses against bacterial infection. However, the commensal microbiota can also lead to maladaptive immune responses during stressor-exposure. This is evident in animal models of colonic inflammation where stressor exposure increases the inflammation through mechanisms involving the microbiota. It is likely that during stressor exposure, immune cell functioning is regulated by combined effects of both neurotransmitters/hormones and commensal microbes. Defining this regulation should be a focus of future studies.

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