Cracking the conversations between brain and gut

Research Lives: Dr Linda Katona, research fellow, University College Cork

Your research looks at the conversations between our gut bugs and our brains, what do we know about these links?

We know that our gut bugs, our gut microbiome, and our brain and behaviour are connected. It might sound strange at first, but think about it – when you are excited or nervous, you might not be hungry, and you feel like you have butterflies in your tummy, and when you are feeling sick in your tummy maybe your brain feels foggy.

So we can experience that they are connected. But we don’t fully understand how those conversations happen between gut and brain.

What kinds of communication channels might there be?


Our brain and gut are physically linked through a large nerve, the vagus nerve. And we also know that the microbes in our gut send out molecules that can affect our immune system, which in turn can affect the brain. But there is much we don’t know. We don’t fully understand how signals arrive into the brain, and how the information gets distributed and goes on to influence behaviour and memory and learning. That’s what I want to figure out.

You started studies as a computer engineer from Transylvania, how did you become a neurobiologist in Cork?

I am a Hungarian from Transylvania, in Romania. It was a beautiful, mountainous place to grow up, and I had a mix of cultures and languages there. I studied computer engineering, then I moved to Oxford to a three-month internship in a neurobiology lab.

I was using my computer engineering skills to help render three-dimensional structures in the brain into two-dimensional maps that could be searched. I loved it – the white coats, the microscopic brain images, the international crowd. So I did a master’s degree in neuroscience and a PhD, and I ended up staying in Oxford for 15 years. My husband is Irish, so we decided to move to Cork as it is a great place for me to research my new ideas.

What caught your eye in Cork?

I had come over to give a talk and I was impressed with the welcome from University College Cork, and how they have such world leaders in the field of gut-bug research. I spoke with Prof John Cryan and I could see how my work and skills could really integrate well here, so I started in UCC last year at APC Microbiome Ireland and the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience.

We are looking at these connections between gut and brain, and also at what can become disrupted in these connections in schizophrenia, or where there is cognitive impairment or memory problems.

What are you grateful for in your work?

So many things. I had a wonderful mentor in Oxford, the neurobiologist Prof Peter Somogyi. He really saw the spark in me. He was like a magician pulling solutions out of a hat – for example, when I wanted to do the Master’s degree, he organised for me to work part-time as a research assistant so I could pay the fees.

I’m also grateful that Cork is such a good match for my ambitions, as it joins well with family wishes. And I’m thankful of course for the research funding from the Health Research Board, Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council, the EU and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in the US.

And what do you like to do in your spare time?

Basketball is one of my big loves. I played competitively for many years. I’m not tall, but I am fast! I also love crosswords, there is always a book of them in my bag when I travel. It makes me so happy to sit down and tackle a puzzle. I can never put it down until I have cracked it.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation