While many of us may have already had some intuitions about this, it has officially been concluded by scientists that our gut is directly connected to our brains. A neuron circuit has been newly discovered that enables the gut to send direct signals to the brain in merely seconds.
Here my imagination solely is guiding me but try to picture as I describe what to me feels like must have been a very exciting moment for the researchers involved… it all began as it often begins in science: by chance. Observations were being made in a laboratory in 2010 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and a startling discovery was made. Neuroscientist Dr Diego Bohórquez was looking through his electron microscope and noticed foot-like protrusions in the enteroendocrine cells. These protrusions resembled the synapses neurons use to communicate with each other. Enteroendocrine cells decorate the linings of our guts and produce hormones that spur digestion and suppress hunger and in case GCSE Biology memories have faded, synapses are the junctions between neurones.
A neuron circuit has been newly discovered that enables the gut to send direct signals to the brain in merely seconds
At the time, it was known that endocrine cells could send signals to the central nervous system but Dr Bohórquez wondered if the enteroendocrine cells could also send signals directly to the brain. This would have required the signals to be sent through the vagus nerve which travels from the gut to the brain stem.
Further research is the only way to find out anything so the researchers got to work. They injected colons of mice with a fluorescent rabies virus and then waited for the enteroendocrine and other linked cells to light up. This virus was chosen because it is transmitted through the neuronal synapses. Yes, you guessed it. In September 2018, the researchers reported that the partner cells are none other but vagal neurons.
It was known that endocrine cells could send signals to the central nervous system but Dr Bohórquez wondered if the enteroendocrine cells could also send signals directly to the brain
Dr Bohórquez has said that impulses sent through this direct link reach the brain much faster than hormones that reach the brain through the bloodstream. A neurotransmitter, glutamate, involved in smell and taste was picked up by the vagal neurones within 100 milliseconds. This is faster than an eye-blink.
There may be many advantages of having this direct route to the such as detection of toxins and poison but there may be further benefits in terms of any supply of nutritional or caloric information to the brain. Researching into this would be the researchers’ next steps and now you guys can head back to eating knowing that our wonderful bodies have yet another mechanism in place so that we can have a more fruitful connection with food (pun intended).