Nav: Home

Gut communicates with the entire brain through cross-talking neurons

April 02, 2020

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.

"Now we're actually finding the neuro-anatomy that might be involved in that 'feeling in your gut,'" says Megan Dailey, study co-author and program administrator in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois.

In addition to showing just how extensive the connections are between the small intestine and the brain, the study uncovered a rarely documented feature of the neurons themselves.

Scientists have long assumed sensations from the gut, or anywhere in the body, traveled to the brain along one set of neurons (the sensory neurons), with instructions from the brain traveling back along a separate set of neurons (the motor neurons). But in their mapping study, Illinois researchers discovered some of the neurons - about half - were transmitting both sensory and motor signals.

They were capable of cross-talk within the same neuron.

"From the cortex to the brainstem, in pretty much every region we investigated, there was that 50% overlap of sensory-motor signals. It was throughout the brain, consistently," says study co-author Elizabeth Davis. Davis is a 2018 graduate of the Illinois Neuroscience Program and is currently studying as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California.

The same pattern - 50% of neurons having both sensory and motor signaling capabilities - had only been shown one other time, in a study mapping neuronal connections between fat tissue and the brain. The researchers point out new evidence of the same crosstalk pattern could suggest a general architecture of neuronal networks between the body and brain.

"This study shows that sensorimotor feedback loops are abundant across all levels of the brain. Up until now, it has really been unknown how information in the small intestine, about nutrients or anything else, can get up to the brain and affect cognitive-emotional processes, and then how those processes can come back down and affect the gut," Parker says. "With more research, we may finally begin to understand how hunger makes us 'hangry,' or how a stressful day becomes an irritable bowel."
-end-
The article, "Central sensory-motor crosstalk in the neural gut-brain axis," is published in Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical [DOI: 10.1016/j.autneu.2020.102656]. Co-authors include Coltan G. Parker, Megan J. Dailey, Heidi Phillips, and Elizabeth A. Davis. The research was supported by USDA NIFA and NIH Center for Neuroanatomy with Neurotropic Viruses. The work was completed within the Department of Animal Sciences in the College of ACES at Illinois.

University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Related Neurons Articles:

A molecule that directs neurons
A research team coordinated by the University of Trento studied a mass of brain cells, the habenula, linked to disorders like autism, schizophrenia and depression.
Shaping the social networks of neurons
Identification of a protein complex that attracts or repels nerve cells during development.
With these neurons, extinguishing fear is its own reward
The same neurons responsible for encoding reward also form new memories to suppress fearful ones, according to new research by scientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.
How do we get so many different types of neurons in our brain?
SMU (Southern Methodist University) researchers have discovered another layer of complexity in gene expression, which could help explain how we're able to have so many billions of neurons in our brain.
These neurons affect how much you do, or don't, want to eat
University of Arizona researchers have identified a network of neurons that coordinate with other brain regions to influence eating behaviors.
Mood neurons mature during adolescence
Researchers have discovered a mysterious group of neurons in the amygdala -- a key center for emotional processing in the brain -- that stay in an immature, prenatal developmental state throughout childhood.
Connecting neurons in the brain
Leuven researchers uncover new mechanisms of brain development that determine when, where and how strongly distinct brain cells interconnect.
The salt-craving neurons
Pass the potato chips, please! New research discovers neural circuits that regulate craving and satiation for salty tastes.
When neurons are out of shape, antidepressants may not work
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication for major depressive disorder (MDD), yet scientists still do not understand why the treatment does not work in nearly thirty percent of patients with MDD.
Losing neurons can sometimes not be that bad
Current thinking about Alzheimer's disease is that neuronal cell death in the brain is to blame for the cognitive havoc caused by the disease.
More Neurons News and Neurons Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.