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BACKGROUND: Recent research has revealed that the community of microorganisms inhabiting the gut affects brain development, function and behaviour. In particular, disruption of the gut microbiome during critical developmental windows can have lasting effects on host physiology. Both antibiotic exposure and germ-free conditions impact the central nervous system and can alter multiple aspects of behaviour. Social impairments are typically displayed by antibiotic-treated and germ-free animals, yet there is a lack of understanding of the underlying neurobiological changes. Since the μ-opioid, oxytocin and vasopressin systems are key modulators of mammalian social behaviour, here we investigate the effect of experimentally manipulating the gut microbiome on the expression of these pathways. RESULTS: We show that social neuropeptide signalling is disrupted in germ-free and antibiotic-treated mice, which may contribute to the behavioural deficits observed in these animal models. The most notable finding is the reduction in neuroreceptor gene expression in the frontal cortex of mice administered an antibiotic cocktail post-weaning. Additionally, the changes observed in germ-free mice were generally in the opposite direction to the antibiotic-treated mice. CONCLUSIONS: Antibiotic treatment when young can impact brain signalling pathways underpinning social behaviour and pain regulation. Since antibiotic administration is common in childhood and adolescence, our findings highlight the potential adverse effects that antibiotic exposure during these key neurodevelopmental periods may have on the human brain, including the possible increased risk of neuropsychiatric conditions later in life. In addition, since antibiotics are often considered a more amenable alternative to germ-free conditions, our contrasting results for these two treatments suggest that they should be viewed as distinct models.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Neurosci

Publication Date





Antibiotics, Germ-free, Microbiome, Neuropeptides, Neuroreceptors, Oxytocin, Vasopressin, Μ-opioid