Scientists want to know whether taking antibiotics early in life can disrupt your immune system function lifelong. Regardless of our age, antibiotics at least temporarily wipe out many of the good gut bacteria, or microbiota, that help us digest and use food and eliminate waste.
That may be particularly problematic for children because, up to about age 3, this useful group of bacteria also is helping educate their immune system about what to ignore and what to attack, said Dr. Leszek Ignatowicz, immunologist in the Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
That means early antibiotic use may also have a lasting impact on the diversity of children’s immune cells, specifically their T cells, that do both, potentially increasing their lifelong risk of inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and more, said Ignatowicz, principal investigator on a new $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that will help parse the impact.
“There has to be that balance, and we think that in the early stage of life, balance is achieved by the microbiota dynamically educating plenty of peacekeeping regulatory cells,” Ignatowicz said.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics, which might be given for anything from a skin infection to bronchitis and tonsillitis, are notorious for wiping out the microbiota, which is why they often cause temporary diarrhea even in adults.
Microbiota also quite literally take up important gut space, leaving less room for invaders, such as the feces-borne bacterium C. difficile, which is often spread by touch and in health care settings, causing diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain. In fact, taking an antibiotic is one of the more common reasons hospitalized patients get C. difficile.
In a laboratory setting at least, scientists have shown mice missing their normal microbiota will even colonize with flora from the lake or soil, Ignatowicz said. While the mice live with their new flora, there are problems with an underdeveloped immune system.
Source: Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, USA.