Scientists note that the number of specialized nervous system cells, neurons and glia, in the human gut is roughly the same as in the cat’s brain.
“Most people don’t know that there are so many neurons in their gut,” says Brian Gulbransen, a Michigan State University Foundation professor in the Department of Physiology at the College of Natural Sciences.
“This discovery is the second brain in our gut, as it is the vast network of neurons and glia that line our intestines,” Gulbransen adds.
Neurons are the most common type of cell, and are famous for delivering electrical signals to the nervous system. On the other hand, glial cells are not electrically active, making it more difficult for researchers to decipher what they do.
Previously, one of the main theories was that glial cells provide passive support to neurons.
Gulbransen and his team show that glial cells play a more active role in the enteric nervous system; Glial cells work in a very precise way to influence the signals carried by the neural circuits.
Scientists say the discovery could help pave the way for new treatments for bowel diseases that affect up to 15 percent of the US population.
Glial cells can also be involved in many other health conditions, including bowel motility disorders, such as constipation and a rare disorder known as chronic pseudo-obstruction.
Gulbransen stresses that they have not yet reached the stage of providing treatments for these problems, but they are more able to examine and fully understand them, enabling them to work on providing appropriate treatments.
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