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Experts discover how our gut instincts reach the brain

When it is time to make an important choice, people often rely on their gut instinct. This inherent guidance originates in the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is referred to as the “second brain” because it operates independently.

The ENS is an extensive network of neurons and transmitters in the human gut that serves the primary purpose of managing digestion.

Experts in the lab of Professor Nick Spencer at Flinders University set out to learn more about the ENS, such as how it manages to transmit critical information to the brain almost instantaneously.

The researchers identified a specific type of neuron in the gut that sends signals to neurons near the spinal cord, where they are carried to the brain.

The study represents a giant step toward understanding ENS functions and the complexity of the gut and brain connection. 

“There is significant interest in how the gut communicates with the brain as a major unresolved issue because of growing evidence that many diseases may first start in the gut and then travel to the brain, an example of which is Parkinson’s Disease,” said Professor Spencer.

“The new study has uncovered how viscerofugal neurons provide a pathway so our gut can ‘sense’ what is going on inside the gut wall, then relay this sensory information more dynamically than was previously assumed to other organs, like the spinal cord and brain which influence our decisions, mood and general well-being.”

The findings may ultimately help to reveal why the ENS plays an increasingly important role in human health. The research could also lead to the development of new treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

“What is particularly exciting about the gut, is that it is unlike all other internal organs (e.g. heart, liver, bladder) because the gut has its own nervous system, which can function independently of the brain or spinal cord,” said Professor Spencer.

“Understanding how the gut communicates and controls other organs in the body can lead to important breakthroughs for disease treatment and this is an important step in the right direction.”

The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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