A gut feeling: How understanding the nerves in your gut could also provide insights into the brain

May 24, 2017

Professor holds fishtank
Julie Kuhlman holds a tank of zebrafish, the animal she uses to study the enteric nervous system.

Have you ever had that feeling of butterflies in your stomach? It’s just your nerves, literally. Your gut contains a large, but often forgotten, system of nerves. Collectively called the enteric nervous system, this system in the gut contains up to five times as many neurons as the number of neurons in the spinal cord.

Julie Kuhlman, assistant professor in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology, studies the enteric nervous system.

“It's a huge subdivision of our nervous system that in the past has not received a lot of research attention,” Kuhlman said. “But that is now beginning to change and we are finding that the enteric nervous system plays an important role in exchanging information between our brain, our intestine (including the bacteria that live in our intestines) and our immune system."

In many ways the nerves in the digestive system act like a mini brain. The primary role of the gut neurons is to move food through the digestive tract using similar signals as neurons in the brain. The gut neurons also serve roles such as sensing fullness, reacting to signals from immune cells and responding to the release of stress hormones, which cause the feeling of butterflies.

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