Study finds growing evidence of the gut’s role in the body’s ‘second brain’

New research has found evidence of the gut contributing to the onset of multiple gastrointestinal diseases. While the data is still in its early stages, the findings could help with developing treatments that would better regulate the enteric nervous system — a second nervous system in the gut that controls the GI tract.

“We have uncovered microbial factors that help regulate the function and structural integrity of the enteric nervous system,” says Keith Sharkey, PhD, a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology in a university media release. “These and other gastrointestinal diseases with manifested changes in enteric neural control are all hard to treat. Our findings could impact approaches to their treatment.”

The study looked at how depleting the microbiome and later restoring it affected the structural and functional role of the gut. Using animal models, they found depleting the microbiome decreased the number of neurons in the enteric nervous system. However, recovering the microbiome to its original state restored gut function and promoted the growth of new neurons.

“The most challenging aspect of researching the unknown physiological roles of the intestinal microbiota lies in identifying specific microbial-derived molecules that may affect the host, as there is a myriad of molecules with the potential to do so,” explains Fernando Vicentini, PhD, lead author of the study.

The next step was to study the potential microbial factors and how they relate to the neural control of the gut. “As our understanding increases regarding the role the gut microbiome plays in gut health, I think we will ultimately have new ways to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal diseases on an individual level,” says Dr. Sharkey.

The study is available to read in the journal Microbiome.

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