NATICK, Mass. -- Gut science? Natick does.

Ken Racicot and Jason Soares, researchers at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, are working to find out more about the impact of military relevant stressors on gut health and the potential effect on warfighter performance. They are also investigating the relationships between the gut and the brain.

Soares and Racicot are working with other CCDC SC researchers, as well as researchers at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

"This research is part of CCDC Soldier Center's focus on lethality and human performance," said Racicot, who works in the Soldier Performance Optimization Directorate at CCDC SC.

CCDC SC is dedicated to using science and technology to ensure America's warfighters are protected, optimized, and lethal. CCDC SC supports all of the Army's Modernization efforts, with the Soldier Lethality and Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Teams being the CCDC SC's chief areas of focus. The center's science and engineering expertise are combined with collaborations with industry, DOD, and academia to advance Soldier and squad performance. The center supports the Army as it transforms from being adaptive to driving innovation to support a Multi-Domain Operations Capable Force of 2028 and a MDO Ready Force of 2035. CCDC SC is constantly working to strengthen Soldiers' performance to increase readiness and support for warfighters who are organized, trained, and equipped for prompt and sustainable ground combat.

The gut microbiome, which refers to the gut microbe system, plays an important role in human health. Researchers are now also discovering emerging links between the gut and physical/cognitive performance. Soldiers face unique physiological, psychological, cognitive and physical stress. These types of stress, individually and in combination, are linked to changes within the gut microbiome that may adversely influence health and performance -- with the full impact yet to be determined.

In an MDO operating environment, Soldier physical and cognitive performance are crucial to mission success at all levels of military operations. It is a highly demanding and unforgiving environment that will challenge Soldiers in unprecedented ways.

The gut is one of the new frontiers of human performance research.
"This is novel work," said Racicot. "So we are working to understand how gut bacteria impact cognition and mood and sleep and brain functions that have to do with performance. There is a bi-directional communication between the brain and the gut."

"Within your gut, you can get inflammation and gastrointestinal issues," said Soares. "So there is a health component related to the gut. But there is also an interaction between your gut and your brain and anything to do with the brain relates to cognitive performance such as decision making, memory, and other cognitive functions. So we want to understand how the gut-brain dynamic influences how someone will perform cognitively and physically."

"Downtime caused by gut problems has a huge impact on overall Soldier performance," said Racicot. "The research could improve a Soldier's ability to perform his or her job on a daily basis and help improve resiliency."

Much of the previous and non-DOD microbiome research has focused on infectious diseases and chronic health issues, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"In contrast, we're concerned with healthy humans and their performance," said Racicot. "So what we have done is stand up a program area that not many people are really looking at. We are investigating how the microbiome impacts performance on relatively healthy young adults. We're asking 'how does the microbiome impact healthy people?'"

"The warfighter is unique in terms of performance demands and exposure to stressors," said Soares. "Athletes, for example, are often in a situation where they can get optimal sleep and nutrition before an event and have some control over stressors. The warfighter has a lot of stressors that all happen at once that they have to overcome and still perform at a high level -- as if they are not stressed."

Racicot recently served as the lead organizer for a groundbreaking topical meeting featuring world renowned researchers. The event was hosted by the Tri-Service Microbiome Consortium, or TSMC, at Framingham State University. The program included Dr. Rob Knight, co-founder of the American Gut Project and Earth Microbiome Project, Dr. John Cryan, world leader in understanding gut-brain science and one of the world's most cited researchers, and Dr. Peter Strick, founding scientific director of the Brain Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as other highly esteemed researchers.

The event brought together two Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives, or MURIs, studying the relationship between the gut and the brain/cognition. Under a MURI, the DOD funds a group of universities to employ multidisciplinary approaches to stimulate innovation in a specific research priority area for three to five years.

Racicot and Soares explained that the Office of Navy Research, or ONR, and Army Research Office, or ARO, have each sponsored a MURI with separate but related research focuses. Dr. Linda Chrisey, Program Manager Biosciences, leads the ONR MURI and Dr. Robert Kokoska, Program Manager for Microbiology, leads the ARO MURI.

Soares and Racicot explained that the ONR MURI academic effort is led by Kenneth Wright, PhD, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is in its fourth year and nearing its end. The ONR MURI is focusing on studying the gut microbiome and responsiveness to stress and is working to develop countermeasure strategies to improve resilience to sleep and circadian disruption. The ARO MURI academic effort is led by Elaine Hsiao, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, or UCLA, and is in its first year. The ARO MURI is focused on interaction between gut bacteria and the brain in response to diet and stress.

Racicot explained that the topical meeting, entitled ARO-ONR MURI Engagement: Innovations in Academia, helped to increase awareness of academic research activities and provided an avenue for collaboration between academic and government microbiome researchers.

"It doesn't happen often that two services -- in this case, the Army and the Navy -- bring two large
MURIs together in one forum," said Racicot. "The program managers for each of the MURIs are very excited that this is happening. The conference brought together the titans of the field. It's the best of the best coming together in one place and possibly working together in the future."

Soares, who serves as the chair of TSMC, feels honored that CCDC SC has been given such a prominent role in DOD gut microbiome research. TSMC was established in 2016 to coordinate DOD-wide microbiome research.

Soares stressed the importance of the recent topical conference.

"By Ken bringing together top leaders in gut microbiome research, the conference was a way to gather insights into the global advances within the microbiome research community," said Soares.
Some of the esteemed scientists presenting at the event have done research for the National Institute of Health and some of them have served on the White House's National Microbiome Initiative.

The audience included DOD scientists and program managers with a general interest in DOD's gut microbiome science programs. The meeting generated international interest as well, with two international academic presentations. Also in attendance were the London-based Army Research Office International Program Manager for Human Dimension, Fredrick Gregory, PhD, and the Office of Navy Research (Global) Science Director for Synthetic Biology, Patrick Rose, PhD. Gregory and Rose have been instrumental in facilitating international gut microbiome and biotechnology activities to support the DOD TSMC programs.

"For me, it was important to really bring the community together to share resources, identify gaps, and avoid redundancies," said Racicot. "We're looking for ways to perhaps manipulate the gut environment to help warfighters perform better."

"To advance our knowledge, we cannot work in a bubble," said Soares. "Connecting and collaborating with these global leaders can help the DOD microbiome community and push it forward to where we want to go in terms of health and performance."

"The field is extremely complex and from a research perspective the whole microbiome field is very young," said Racicot. "Leveraging what academics are doing in the field is hugely important and that's why this meeting was so significant. The potential is almost limitless and we're excited about it."

If you are interested in finding out more about CCDC SC's microbiome research efforts, please contact Jason Soares at jason.w.soares.civ@mail.mil or Ken Racicot at kenneth.racicot.civ@mail.mil.

For more information regarding the Tri-Service Microbiome Initiative, please consult: https://www.army.mil/article/188844/ and https://msystems.asm.org/content/3/4/e00086-18.abstract

For more information on White House Microbiome Initiative: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/05/13/announcing-national-microbiome-initiative