Unveiling the secrets of the brain-gut link: Engineers make new discoveries

MIT engineers have developed cutting-edge technology to investigate the intricate relationship between the brain and the gut.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Gut brain connection
Gut brain connection


Researchers from MIT have made a major breakthrough in understanding the complex relationship between the brain and the gut. Their innovative technology, which utilizes specialized fibers embedded with sensors and light sources for optogenetic stimulation, has allowed them to manipulate neural circuits connecting these two vital organs in mice.

For years, scientists have recognized the crucial link between the brain and the digestive tract, with signals constantly flowing between them to regulate feeding patterns and other behaviors. However, understanding the precise mechanisms involved has proven to be a challenging task. That is, until now.

Led by Polina Anikeeva, a professor at MIT and director of the K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center, the research team has developed an electronic interface using flexible fibers that can be inserted into the gut and other organs of interest. These fibers, as thin as human hair, are embedded with electrodes, temperature sensors, light-emitting devices, and microfluidic channels for drug delivery.

What makes this breakthrough truly remarkable is the ability to achieve millisecond precision in measuring neuronal signals and manipulating gut function through optogenetics. The researchers were able to trigger specific behaviors in mice, optogenetically stimulating cells in the gut, such as seeking out rewards or feeling satiated.

Anikeeva explains, "The exciting thing here is that we now have technology that can drive gut function and behaviors such as feeding. More importantly, we have the ability to start accessing the crosstalk between the gut and the brain with the millisecond precision of optogenetics, and we can do it in behaving animals."

The implication of the research

The implications of this research are far-reaching. By unraveling the connections between the brain and the gut, scientists hope to gain insights into the correlation between digestive health and neurological conditions like autism and Parkinson's disease.

For instance, studies have shown a higher prevalence of gastrointestinal dysfunction in autistic children, suggesting a potential gut-brain connection. Understanding this link opens up new possibilities for managing and treating these conditions by manipulating peripheral circuits and avoiding invasive procedures that directly impact the brain.

The team's achievement was made possible through the collaborative efforts of MIT graduate student Atharva Sahasrabudhe, Duke University postdoc Laura Rupprecht, MIT postdoc Sirma Orguc, and former MIT postdoc Tural Khudiyev. Their pioneering work has garnered significant attention and was recently published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.

Anikeeva concludes, "For a long time, we thought the brain is a tyrant that sends output into the organs and controls everything. But now we know there’s a lot of feedback back into the brain, and this feedback potentially controls some of the functions that we have previously attributed exclusively to the central neural control."

The future holds promising opportunities to explore the gut-brain connection further and unlock new possibilities for managing neurological disorders. As scientists continue to push the boundaries of our understanding, the intricate web of communication between the brain and gut may hold the key to many health breakthroughs.

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