When the digestive system influences a child’s sleep

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
Sleep cycles and neurological development in children are closely linked to interactions between the brain and the gut. Two researchers from the University of Fribourg, in collaboration with colleagues from ETH Zurich and Lucerne Children’s Hospital, have just been awarded a 2.4 million SNSF grant to better understand these mechanisms, which are fundamental to the health of toddlers.

In recent years, the complex interactions between the digestive system and the brain have fascinated researchers around the world. More and more evidence is emerging that the intestinal microbiota, made up of billions of micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, affects neurological development, a process that is obviously of prime importance in infants and children. But that’s by no means all, as scientists have also demonstrated that intestinal flora influences sleep and cognitive functions, from as early as 3 months of age.

A decisive process in children

Although our digestive system is almost "sterile" at birth, it is rapidly colonized by microbes, particularly during the first two years of life. This process, if not carried out optimally, can lead to long-term health problems. In premature babies, this can translate into sleep and development problems. Yet, despite improvements in neonatal care, premature birth rates continue to rise, due in part to increasingly late pregnancies, environmental factors or chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. It is therefore important to find preventive measures and effective therapies", explain Petra Zimmermann and Salomé Kurth, specialists in children’s sleep at the University of Fribourg. Together with their colleagues Nicholas Bokulich from the ETH Zurich and Martin Stocker from the Children’s Hospital Lucerne, they have just launched the Napbiome study, an SNSF project endowed with 2.4 million Swiss francs.

Finding the right balance

The group of scientists will be looking for the best way to target the gut microbiome, in order to improve sleep patterns in small children. We plan to conduct several experiments in which we administer symbiotics, i.e. good gut bacteria, to children. We will then examine the extent to which these bacteria improve sleep and neurological development in full-term and premature infants", explains Petra Zimmermann.

The course of the study

To be representative, the study will involve a cohort of around 380 children, some of whom will receive symbiotics, others a placebo. Parents will be asked to complete an online questionnaire and collect stool samples from their offspring. At the age of one and then two, the children will undergo clinical evaluations at the hospital, including developmental and allergy testing.

Finding the right microbiotic cocktail

At the end of this study, in August 2028, the researchers hope to be able to better understand how the administration of symbiotics can, by modifying the composition of the intestinal microbiota, influence the sleep cycle and neurobehavioral development of children born prematurely or at term. We will then be able to take the best measures to ensure that our children develop harmoniously," concludes Salomé Kurth.