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Researchers at Flinders University have released new findings that illustrate how the gut’s cells work in tandem with the spinal cord and brain, in turn influencing people’s cognitive and emotional behaviours.

Published in the American Journal of Physiology, the research shows how the gut – frequently referred to as the “second brain” because of its Enteric Nervous System – and its enterochromaffin (EC) cells releases the material that communicates with the brain’s sensory nerves, study co-author Professor Nick Spencer explained.

“Within the gut wall lie specialised cells called EC cells that produce and release hormones and neurotransmitters in response to particular stimuli that are ingested when we eat,” the Professor said.

“These EC cells release the vast majority of serotonin into the body, so our study has uncovered a major clue into how the food we eat stimulates the release of serotonin, which then acts on the nerves to communicate with the brain.”

Of particular note in the study, which was conducted on mouse colon, was the observation that EC Cells don’t physically interact with the sensory nerves of the brain, but rather “diffuse” the various the materials they emit, which is significant because most of the body’s serotonin is released by the gut’s EC Cells.

“There is a direct connection between serotonin levels in our body and depression and how we feel. So, understanding how the gut EC cells communicate with the brain is of major importance,” Professor Spencer observed.

While previous research has helped uncover the importance of the gut-brain link, Professor Spencer said this discovery – fuelled by innovations in Flinders University’s own lab that allowed them to clearly observe the body’s sensory nerves in action – was notable because it explained some of the link’s nuances.

“The gut-brain axis consists of bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut, which links emotional and cognitive centres of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions,” he explained.

“Recent advances in research have described the importance of gut microbiota in influencing these pathways but we had yet to uncover how the communication was working.

“This has not been possible, until now, because there were so many other types of nerves also present in the gut – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

The article, titled, “The gut-brain axis: spatial relationship between spinal afferent nerves and 5-HT-containing enterochromaffin cells in mucosa of mouse colon,” is available to read here.