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Early Life Experience and Gut Microbiome: The Brain–Gut–Microbiota Signaling System

Cong, Xiaomei PhD, RN; Henderson, Wendy A. PhD, MSN, CRNP; Graf, Joerg PhD; McGrath, Jacqueline M. PhD, RN, FNAP, FAAN

Section Editor(s): Gregory, Katherine E.

doi: 10.1097/ANC.0000000000000191
Special Series: Unraveling the Microbiome

Background: Over the past decades, advances in neonatal care have led to substantial increases in survival among preterm infants. With these gains, recent concerns have focused on increases in neurodevelopment morbidity related to the interplay between stressful early life experiences and the immature neuroimmune systems. This interplay between these complex mechanisms is often described as the brain–gut signaling system. The role of the gut microbiome and the brain–gut signaling system have been found to be remarkably related to both short- and long-term stress and health. Recent evidence supports that microbial species, ligands, and/or products within the developing intestine play a key role in early programming of the central nervous system and regulation of the intestinal innate immunity.

Purpose: The purpose of this state-of-the-science review is to explore the supporting evidence demonstrating the importance of the brain–gut–microbiota axis in regulation of early life experience. We also discuss the role of gut microbiome in modulating stress and pain responses in high-risk infants. A conceptual framework has been developed to illustrate the regulation mechanisms involved in early life experience.

Conclusions: The science in this area is just beginning to be uncovered; having a fundamental understanding of these relationships will be important as new discoveries continue to change our thinking, leading potentially to changes in practice and targeted interventions.

School of Nursing, University of Connecticut, Storrs (Dr Cong); Digestive Disorder Unit, Biobehavioral Branch, NINR, NIH, Bethesda, MD (Dr Henderson); Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs (Dr Graf); and School of Nursing, University of Connecticut, Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Storrs (Dr McGrath).

Correspondence: Xiaomei Cong, PhD, RN, School of Nursing, University of Connecticut, 231 Glenbrook Rd U4026, Storrs, CT 06269 (

There are no declared conflicts of interest for any of this study's authors.

© 2015 by The National Association of Neonatal Nurses