Researchers at Michigan State University have made a surprising discovery about the enteric nervous system of the human gut, which itself is filled with surprising facts. To begin with, there is the fact that this “second brain” exists.

“Most people don’t even know they have this in their guts,” said Brian Gulbransen, MSU Foundation professor in the physiology department at the College of Natural Sciences.

Beyond that, the enteric nervous system is remarkably independent: the intestines could perform many of their usual tasks even if they somehow became disconnected from the central nervous system. And the number of specialized nervous system cells, namely neurons and glia, that live in a person’s gut is roughly equivalent to the number found in a cat’s brain.

“It’s like this second brain in our intestines,” Gulbransen said. “It’s a vast network of neurons and glial cells that line our intestines.”

Neurons are the most well-known type of cell that conducts the electrical signals of the nervous system. Glia, on the other hand, is not electrically active, which has made it more difficult for researchers to decipher what these cells are doing. One of the main theories was that glial cells provide passive support to neurons.

Gulbransen and his team have now shown that glial cells play a much more active role in the enteric nervous system. In research published online Oct. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Spartans revealed that the glia acts in a very precise way to influence the signals carried by the neural circuits. This discovery could help pave the way for new treatments for bowel diseases that affect up to 15% of the American population.

“Thinking of this second brain as a computer, the glia are the chips running on the periphery,” Gulbransen said. “They are an active part of the signaling network, but not like neurons. Glia modulates or alters the signal.”

In computer language, glia would be the logical gates. Or, for a more musical metaphor, glia don’t carry the notes played on an electric guitar, it’s the pedals and amplifiers that modulate the pitch and volume of those notes.

Regardless of the analogy, glia is more essential in making sure things go right – or sounding right – than scientists previously thought. This work creates a more complete, albeit more complicated, picture of how the enteric nervous system works. It also creates new opportunities for potentially treating bowel disorders.

“This is a later way, but now we can start to wonder if there is a way to target a specific type or set of glial cells and change their function in some way. “said Gulbransen. “Pharmaceutical companies are already interested in it.”

Earlier this year, Gulbransen’s team discovered that glia may open up new avenues to help treat irritable bowel syndrome, a painful condition that currently has no cure and affects 10-15% of Americans. Glia could also be implicated in several other health problems, including bowel motility disorders, such as constipation, and a rare disorder known as chronic bowel pseudo-obstruction.

“At the moment, there is no known cause. People are developing what looks like a bowel obstruction, but there is no physical obstruction,” Gulbransen said. “There is just part of their gut that stops working.

Although he pointed out that science is not at the point of providing cures for these problems, it is better equipped to probe and understand them more fully. And Gulbransen believes MSU will be a central figure in developing this understanding.

“MSU has one of the best gut research groups in the world. We have this huge, diverse group of people working across all major areas of gut science, ”he said. “It’s a real strength for us.”

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Material provided by University of Michigan. Original written by Matt Davenport. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.


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