Sage Researchers Find Bacterium Enhances Learning

June 1, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Sage Professor Matthews Presents Intriguing Research at National Conference

Bacterium in Soil Enhances Learning, Decreases Anxiety

Turning off the TV and computer and spending some time outdoors may not only be good for your health, it may also make you smarter, according to research presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego by associate professor of biology at The Sage Colleges, Dorothy Matthews. Matthews conducted the research, entitled Effect of Mycobacterium vaccae on Learning, with her colleague, associate professor of psychology and biology, Susan Jenks.

Matthews became intrigued by mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium commonly found in soil, several years ago after a study indicated that mice injected with a heat-killed version of the bacterium resulted in increased levels of serotonin and reduced levels of anxiety. Serotonin levels, which elevate mood and reduce anxiety, are associated with learning and Matthews was intrigued by the possibility that the bacterium could have an effect on learning in mice and that's exactly what the researchers found.

Mice exposed to the bacteria by nibbling on enticing tidbits of peanut butter snacks laced with the live bacterium were able to negotiate through a maze twice as fast as those in the control group and exhibited a reduction in anxiety behaviors as well.

The mice exhibited a profound increase in learning, according to the study. Even weeks after the mice stopped snacking on the live bacterium, they were still able to impress the researches with their newly learned skills. Three weeks later, the effect seemed to taper off, although since mice live on average for about 2 years, the effects were still impressive.

According to Matthews, as we have become more urbanized, we have had less contact with an organism that may actually be very useful. "If you think about it, when we look at our evolutionary history, we spent a lot of time as hunter-gatherers, or even more recently in agriculture, where we had lots of contact with the soil. It's only been the last 100 years or so that we've become more urbanized and are eating our foods in a different way."

The research offers intriguing possibilities by suggesting that germs may actually play a role in reducing anxiety and enhancing learning. Matthews suggests that spending time outdoors and interacting with nature - taking walks in the woods or gardening or playing - may play a role in the way we learn and help reduce our anxiety as well.