Big Questions Part 4: Shit for Brains

Shit for Brains or,
Big Questions part 4 Who Am I? Who Is What?

Who gives a shit? You might, and if you don’t… well perhaps that calls for a faecal transplant. That’s right a shit transplant. It sounded pretty far out when the subject first came up, but before getting into that let me recap:

By big questions I have in mind especially, but not only, these two which are posed by Silo in the very brief writing titled, The Path:

Do not let your life pass by without asking yourself, “Who am I?”
Do not let your life pass by without asking yourself, “Where am I going?”

He further recommends that we:

Do not let a day pass by without giving an answer to yourself about who you are.
Do not let a day pass by without giving an answer to yourself about where you are going.

Back in September of last year (2015) I posted part 3 of some musing on this theme. It included the following lines:

…Who am I? From this point of view whatever else I am, I’m at least a community of millions of tiny invisible critters that live in me and on me… …Well, certainly that’s weird, but that these microbes make their home on me — “the visible host” — is not the most surprising thing. Certainly, it’s easy to believe that the bacteria on you and in you have a major effect on your health. But now scientists are telling us that they also modify the host’s social interactions, interests and emotions. In the future I’ll be posting some examples of how the microbes in your gut might regulate what you feel. Or even what you think…
…But that’s not what interests me right now. I want to know if, instead of “Who am I?” I should be asking “Who Am We”.

And so here we are with that long promised part 4. On one hand it seems I’m not quite the simple unitary (or unified) being I may have supposed. The bacteria in my gut seem to have a lot to do with my feeling of who I am, with my basic emotions and moods as well as much more. All this is perhaps not too surprising when you recall that their immediate environment (my gut) has more serotonin (one of the key neurotransmitters, the chemicals my brain uses to communicate) than anywhere else other than my brain. In fact it contains 90% of the body’s serotonin. So I really do have a gut feeling about all this. That gut feeling is my intestinal flora, my microbiome (the bacteria living inside me), having a chat with my brain. New research shows that bacteria don’t just affect my mood and my health they are key in producing this chemical vital to the workings of my brain.

What!!??!? If I don’t like what those bugs are saying perhaps you can lend me yours. Proving once again (as if more proof was needed) that truth is stranger than fiction it ends up that this is not only possible it is quickly becoming standard procedure. And for good reason. Replacing the unhelpful critters in our gut with more cooperative ones is already heralded as useful with many very intractable problems from, asthma to obesity. Not to mention cancer, Parkinson’s, eczema, and that almost ubiquitous horror of hospital infections, C. difficilie. And changing them can apparently change your mood, and how you feel about yourself… Remember we are talking about bacteria, living creatures who (you would have thought) are not you, certainly not part of your essential makeup, of who you are.

Clostridium difficile is an infection often endemic to hospitals. It causes fever, diarrhoea, and can kill you. It’s super hard to get rid of, you can knock it back with antibiotics but it just keeps on going. However, 90 percent of these cases seem to be cured by a faecal transplant. That is, shit from a donor, tested for nasty bacteria and viruses, is introduced to the patient – rectally. These happy, healthy folk take over your gut and soon overpower the nasty (and appropriately named) C. Difficile.
Of course if the donor shit is contaminated it could be a source of problems. A weird example came up in 2010 when a doctor in Rhode Island who had successfully used this treatment for hundreds of patients with C. dificile gave a transplant to a woman from her daughter. The donor had always had a tendency towards obesity. Anyway the transplant worked, and the potentially deadly infection was wiped out. However the woman, previously of normal weight, started to experience sudden and staggering weight gain. That was the first known example of this kind of side effect but it wasn’t the last. However, careful choice of donors can avoid that problem. More enticing to some is the fact that, it might be possible to do the reverse, to transplant faeces from a lean donor to an overweight one and voila…
Why stop there. Doctors have already noted other surprising side effects like curing colitis and depression. Perhaps we should go out and find a neighbour who is lean, good humoured, in great health, etc and see if we can borrow a cup of shit instead of sugar. On that note we should point out that, in the US alone, there are dozens of clinical trials underway on the use of this treatment for Crohn’s disease, diabetes and even HIV.

While researchers are warning that this is not something to try at home, in February 2014 New Scientist magazine ran an article about the upswing in do it yourself shit transplants.
And who needs a transplant when you can just eat shit. Forbes magazine reported in January of 2016 that Massachusetts General Hospital will later this year be moving into clinical tests of a feces pill that can introduce the donor excrement orally rather than rectally.
One could make a joke about the advance of science but leaving aside both that easy shot and considerations about the medical importance let’s return to our theme.
I might feel separate (like a host from its parasite) if the underpinnings of my identity were not influenced by these other beings (benign or hostile). However, for a symbiotic creature the lines become blurred. Along with that my meditation on who I am takes a funny turn.
Coming up in Big Questions: we mess with our simple, unitary sense of self-hood from yet other angles. For example some thoughts on a parasitic organism that can control the behaviour of rodents and perhaps ours as well. Also some musings on the possibility and implications of brain transplants.
That and more coming to this space soon.
illustrations by Rafael Edwards from my anecdote Ed and Me