Gut communicates with the entire brain through cross-talking neurons

NSP students in the news: Coltan Parker, Megan Dailey, Elizabeth Davis

URBANA, Ill. – You know that feeling in your gut? We think of it as an innate intuition that sparks deep in the belly and helps guide our actions, if we let it. It’s also a metaphor for what scientists call the “gut-brain axis,” a biological reality in which the gut and its microbial inhabitants send signals to the brain, and vice versa.

It’s not a surprise that the brain responds to signals in the gut, initiating motor functions involved with digestion. Directed by the brainstem, these types of basic biological actions are largely automatic. But what if the higher brain – the thinking, emotional centers – were influenced by signals in the gut, too? New University of Illinois research in rats shows the entire brain responds to the gut, specifically the small intestine, through neuronal connections.

To map the connections, researchers inserted neuron-loving viruses in the rats’ small intestines and traced the viruses as they moved from neuron to neuron along the Vagus and spinal nerves and throughout the brain. The idea was virus movement mimicked the movement of normal signals through neurons from the gut to the brain and back.

“We saw a lot of connections in the brainstem and hindbrain regions. We knew these regions are involved in sensing and controlling the organs of the body, so there weren't any big surprises there. But things got more interesting as the viruses moved farther up into parts of the brain that are usually considered emotional centers or learning centers, cognitive places. They have all these multifaceted functions. So thinking about how information from the small intestine might be nudging those processes a little bit is really cool,” says Coltan Parker, doctoral student in the Neuroscience Program at Illinois and lead author on a study published in Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical. 

The study represents the first complete map of neuronal connections between the small intestine – what Parker and his co-authors call an “underloved” part of the digestive system – and the entire brain. The involvement of cognitive and emotional centers hints at how the thinking brain sometimes overrides our feeling of being full, provides fodder to explore relationships between depression and digestive troubles, and more.

Read more : ACES News