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Sadia Ahmed: Exploring postnatal brain development through gut microbiome research

The following story was written in April 2021 by Madison Storm in ENGL ​4824​: Science Writing ​as part of a collaboration between the English department and the Center for Communicating Science.

The brain is one of the most complex and mysterious parts of our body. From the second we are born to the second we die, our brain communicates with the rest of our body to keep things in order.

    Researchers have studied this communication tirelessly over decades, all with the hope of understanding more today than we did yesterday. Sadia Ahmed is one of these researchers, hungry for information that can answer questions and change lives. But Ahmed tries to answer those questions from an unusual angle: she studies the brain by studying the gut.

This photo shows a young woman with brown skin wearing a red head covering, a white lab coat, and blue lab gloves seated at a bench in a laboratory.
Sadia Ahmed working in one of the labs in the Life Sciences building on the Virginia Tech campus. Photo courtesy of Jing Ju.

    Ahmed loves to solve problems and to continue learning. She links the two as a means to fuel her passion. As she discusses her current work and plans for the future, it’s clear that this drive for knowledge isn’t going anywhere. 

    Originally from Bangladesh, Ahmed has taken advantage of every opportunity to continue her education. After receiving her Bachelor of Science in microbiology, she earned two master’s degrees, in microbiology and biological sciences, while also serving in three teaching and research-based assistantships. Although personal experiences often bring researchers to their subject matter, Ahmed instead emphasized her interest in helping others and finding answers. 

    “I want to solve problems that are real,” she says. “Ones we can solve easily and, for me, because I came from a developing world, I want to find a quick, affordable, efficient solution.”

    Ahmed is currently a second-year Ph.D. student in Virginia Tech’s Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences graduate program. She collaborates with advisor Dr. Paul Morton, her Ph.D. committee, other Virginia Tech labs, veterinary and biomedical graduate students, and others in studying the impact of the gut microbiome on postnatal brain development. 

    What is a gut microbiome, and what does it have to do with how our brain develops? The gut microbiome is essentially an ecosystem of everything living in our gut, including bacteria, viruses, microorganisms, genetic material, and more. The microbiome works hard, helping to keep you healthy and manage the potential development of diseases. 

    Ahmed says that we currently understand that the gut microbiome has an impact on how a baby’s brain develops in the time after being born. But how might the brain develop differently without the gut microbiome present? That’s where Ahmed’s research comes in.

Thsis photo shows the profile of a person wearing a red head scarf, white lab coat, and blue lab gloves. She is holding a pipette and standing at a lab bench.
Ahmed pipetting cells, part of her research. Photo courtesy of Jing Ju.

    Studying babies’ brain development shortly after birth is difficult, but it turns out the postnatal brains of baby humans are very similar to those of baby pigs. So Ahmed spends most of her time studying pig brains and how the presence, or lack thereof, of the gut microbiome affects the people we grow to be. 

    This research is still in its beginning stages, with data collection and development plans for the study’s future holding priority. COVID-19 regulations added challenges to the research process, with fewer people being allowed in the lab at once, but Ahmed remains optimistic.

    “I’m loving it,” she says. “It’s unpredictable, but that’s what research is.” 

    The overall goal of Ahmed’s work is to gain a deeper understanding of how our brains develop during infancy with and without gut microbiomes assisting in the process. 

    Ahmed used a familiar example to explain her work. If the genes associated with your hair were altered, how would your hair change? Would it be a different color? Would it grow faster or slower? Ahmed’s research with gut microbiomes similarly alters one factor and looks for changes in others: Without any gut microbiome, what will brain development look like?

    After winning second place for her presentation at the 37th Annual Graduate Student Assembly Research Symposium and Exposition, Ahmed felt increased optimism about the importance of her research in the real world. There are huge implications tied to potential discoveries from this research, she says, especially with regards to improving quality of life. Having a deeper understanding of the science behind many common disorders brings us closer to minimizing or eliminating these problems.

    As Ahmed says, “Our brains are always growing,” and her research on postnatal brain development will help create a deeper understanding of the “how” behind brain growth. 

    Ahmed’s excitement about her research seems endless, and in the next few months, she hopes to collect more data, get her first manuscript published, and receive access to magnetic resonance images (MRI) of pig brains—which will help her compare her pig data to actual human brains. 

    We’ll anxiously await results that show how gut microbiomes can improve or impair postnatal brain development.