Aalto-Helsinki Team Wiki

Aalto-Helsinki Team Wiki




The burden of mental disorders continues to grow globally with significant impacts not only on health, but also on human rights and economics (World Health Organization, 2019). While we are better informed of mental disorders and are aiming for a healthier future, the complexity of the issue - and even the human mind itself - still remains a major roadblock.

We shared a common concern of the potential consequences of COVID-19 on people's psychological well-being, since we had all experienced social distancing and remote study to be very mentally draining. This worry was supported by studies that have shown the connection between COVID-19 and increased risk for developing anxiety and depression symptoms (Savolainen et al., 2021; Kekäläinen et al., 2021).

With the rising interest in the microbiome, we were curious to see how we could use the gut microbiome to treat or diagnose mental illnesses utilizing the gut-brain-axis. Read more about our inspiration and how our project developed from our initial idea in Human Practices.

The Gut-Brain Axis

The gut-brain-axis is defined as the bidirectional communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system (Carabotti et al., 2015). This communication pathway is strongly affected by the microbes living in our gut, our gut microbiota.

When conducting our literature review on potential connections within the gut-brain axis, we quickly learned that there were many preliminary associations reported, but no confident correlations. For example, one Norwegian study that looked at fecal samples of depressed patients showed that the overrepresentation of bacteria from the order Bacteroidales and an underrepresentation of bacteria from the family Lachnospiraceae were observed in operational taxonomic units associated with depression (Naseribafrouei et al., 2014). Tryptophan metabolites have also been shown to have an effect on mental health and the gut microbiome to have an impact on downstream tryptophan metabolite concentrations. This is why we decided to focus particularly on tryptophan metabolites (for more information, see: Design). In addition, many of these studies were performed using only fecal samples and most studies that looked at concentrations within the gut itself were mostly rodent studies. With not much information on the human gut microbiome in real time, and noticing a lack of proper tools to establish confident correlations within the gut-brain-axis, we saw the need for an in vivo sampling method of the human gut microbiota. We were further inspired by the iGEM Team Thessaly 2020 who addressed this sampling concern and worked on an ingestible biosensor that looked at measuring short chain fatty acids in the gut. We reached out to them regarding their project, and continued on to collaborate with them throughout our projects. To read more about our collaboration, click here.

However, as our research proceeded and the ideation process advanced, we understood that there are still many unanswered issues. Before we can even consider treating mental disorders in the context of the gut microbiota, a better understanding of it and its effect on the gut-brain axis is necessary. As such, we shaped our project with a heavy focus on advancing the methods of studying and gathering data on the gut microbiota and its relation with the gut-brain axis, which will eventually help further research in this field.

Introducing GutLux

GutLux is an ingestible biosensor, which aims to function as a tool that allows researchers to observe real-time metabolite measurements from the gut. With the information retrieved from GutLux, we hope that it will help illuminate connections involved in the gut-brain axis, and help us work towards a healthier future. By understanding what is happening in the gut, and how the gut microbiota is involved, it can help us develop different diagnostics and therapeutics that are diverse and holistic. To read more about how our project would be implemented in the real-world, check here.

GutLux is composed of two compartments. The biological compartment contains the engineered cells that detect and quantify our metabolites of interest, and the electrical component contains the hardware that transforms the biological information to an electrical signal. Read more about these compartments in Design.

To make GutLux happen, we designed a biological detection mechanism, performed modeling and developed a prototype of the capsule and its electrical components. Read more about all the individual goals of each component on Wet Lab, Modeling and Hardware.


1. Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 203–209.

2. Kekäläinen, T., Hietavala, E. M., Hakamäki, M., Sipilä, S., Laakkonen, E. K., & Kokko, K. (2021). Personality Traits and Changes in Health Behaviors and Depressive Symptoms during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Longitudinal Analysis from Pre-pandemic to Onset and End of the Initial Emergency Conditions in Finland. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(15), 7732.

3. Naseribafrouei, A., Hestad, K., Avershina, E., Sekelja, M., Linløkken, A., Wilson, R., & Rudi, K. (2014). Correlation between the human fecal microbiota and depression. Neurogastroenterology and motility : the official journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 26(8), 1155–1162.

4. Savolainen, I., Oksa, R., Savela, N., Celuch, M., & Oksanen, A. (2021). COVID-19 Anxiety—A Longitudinal Survey Study of Psychological and Situational Risks among Finnish Workers. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(2), 794.

5. World Health Organization. (2019, November 28). Mental disorders. World Health Organization.

Aalto-Helsinki Team Wiki