Elaine Hsiao

2022 National Award Winner — Faculty

Elaine Hsiao

Current Position:
Associate Professor; De Logi Chair of Biological Sciences

University of California, Los Angeles


Recognized for:  Discoveries to understand how the gut microbiome–the community of microorganisms that live in our intestines–interacts with the nervous system. Elaine Hsiao, PhD, studies how the biomolecules produced by gut bacteria, also known as metabolites, influence neurodevelopment, neurological functioning, and gastrointestinal and neurological disorders. She found that select bacteria modify metabolites to reduce seizures and stimulate cells to synthesize serotonin. Hsiao also discovered that the microbiomes of pregnant women regulate metabolites that can not only guide fetal neurodevelopment, but can also impact behavior later in life. Hsiao’s findings form the foundations of translational initiatives to treat autism, epilepsy, and neurological co-morbidities of irritable bowel syndrome.

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise:

Gut-brain interaction, gut microbiome, maternal microbiome, neurodevelopment, neuroimmunology

Previous Positions:

De Logi Chair of Biological Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles
Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
Assistant Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
Research Assistant Professor, Caltech
Senior Research Fellow, Caltech
Postdoctoral Fellow, Caltech; Sarkis Mazmanian and Rustem Ismagilov
PhD, Caltech; Paul H. Patterson
BSc, University of California, Los Angeles

Research Summary:

Biologist Elaine Hsiao, PhD, is making unprecedented discoveries on the gut-brain connection by investigating the gut microbiome and the biomolecules they produce¾also known as metabolites. Hsiao is advancing our understanding of how bacterial metabolites influence neurodevelopment, neurological diseases, and gastrointestinal disorders. Much of the research on the gut microbiome-brain interactions look at correlations between bacterial species and various disorders. Hsiao, however, is focused on identifying the specific types of bacteria and their mechanisms of action for directly impacting brain function.

Hsiao’s laboratory made the remarkable discovery that the metabolites produced by the microbiome of pregnant women can influence fetal neurodevelopment and have lasting impact on adult behavior of their offspring. This discovery could have important implications for maternal-fetal health and risk for neurodevelopmental disorders.

Hsiao’s laboratory also found that select gut bacteria regulate levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and interact directly with the serotonin system and common anti-depressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This means that the gut microbiome could influence the effects of antidepressant drugs.

Hsiao also uncovered how the low-carbohydrate, high fat ketogenic diet can help treat seizure disorders. She found that ketogenic diets alter the gut microbiome resulting in select bacteria that modify metabolites and neurotransmitter levels to reduce seizures. These findings pave the way for new microbiome-based approaches for treating people with medication-resistant epilepsy.

Hsiao’s discoveries on the broad impact of the gut microbiome and their specific metabolites are critical for understanding fundamental inter-organ interactions, and a variety of neurological and gastrointestinal disorders. These breakthroughs pave the way for innovative solutions to treat disease.

By studying how gut microbes interact with the nervous system, we hope to uncover fundamental principles for communication across different organ systems and new ways to treat diseases of the gut and brain.

Key Publications:

  1. J.M. Yano, K. Yu, G. Donaldson, G. Shastri, L. Ma, P. Ann, C. Nagler, R.F. Ismagilov, S.K. Mazmanian, E.Y.Hsiao. Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis. Cell. 2015
  2. T.C. Fung, H.E. Vuong, C.D.G. Luna, G.N. Pronovost, A.A Aleksandrova, N.G. Riley, A. Vavilina, J. McGinn, T. Rendon, L.R. Forrest, E.Y. Hsiao EY. Intestinal serotonin and fluoxetine exposure modulate bacterial colonization in the gut.Nature Microbiology, 2019
  3. H.E. Vuong, G.N. Pronovost, D. Williams, E.J.L. Coley, E.L. Siegler, A. Qiu, M. Kasantsev, C.J. Wilson, T. Rendon, E.Y. Hsiao. The maternal gut microbiota modulates fetal neurodevelopment in mice. Nature, 2020
  4. C.A. Olson, H.E. Vuong, J.M. Yano, Q.Y. Liang, D.J. Nusbaum, E.Y. Hsiao. The gut microbiota mediates the anti-seizure effects of the ketogenic diet. Cell, 2018

Other Honors:

2022 Early-Career Scientist Winner, Innovators in Science Award in Gastroenterology
2019 John H. Walsh Young Investigator Research Prize
2018 Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative Ben Barres Career Acceleration Award
2019 New York Stem Cell Foundation Robertson Neuroscience Investigator
2017 Packard Fellow in Science and Engineering
2017 Klingenstein-Simons Fellow in Neuroscience
2016 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in Neuroscience
2015 Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences
2014 Forbes’ “30 Under 30 in Science & Healthcare”
2013 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award

In the Media:

Chemical & Engineering NewsSerotonin helps gut microbes thrive

New York TimesGerms in Your Gut Are Talking to Your Brain. Scientists Want to Know What They’re Saying.

New York Times Magazine – Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?