Friday, 9 June 2017 at 15:00 in the Seminar Room 48e, EMBL Hamburg

Maureen O’Malley, University of Bordeaux

Do microbes control the mind? Issues in brain, gut and microbiota research


Microbiota research uses a sequencing-based approach to examine the composition and function of microbial communities in specific niches. Some of the most intensive research in this area has been carried out on the gut microbiota of animals, particularly humans and mice. Many associations have been made between microbiota composition and various health or disease states. A rapidly expanding area of investigation is concerned with the connections between animal gut microbiota, the enteric nervous system, and various brain and behavioural states. Links have been made between microbiota composition and disorders such as autism, anxiety and depression. Microbiota even seem to influence general cognition and memory. Many strong interpretations have been made of these findings, including claims that microbiota control animal behaviour in the manner of puppeteers controlling puppets. I will examine these claims in the context of a variety of problems in microbiota research methodology and what they can say about causality.


Maureen O'Malley is a philosopher of biology who specializes in philosophical issues in microbiology. After a PhD on evolutionary explanation in the social sciences at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sussex, she spent some years in evolutionary microbiologist Ford Doolittle's lab in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She did philosophy of genomics research for several years at the University of Exeter, and then re-focused on microbiology for a five-year project at the University of Sydney. Now she is at the University of Bordeaux working on philosophical issues in microbiota research and microbial model systems. See her website for more details.