(ORDO NEWS) — The intestines have long been considered the most important organ of the digestive system, but recent research has shed light on its role in a number of critical functions. Scientists have discovered that the enteric nervous system (ENS), often called the “second brain,” plays a central role in regulating immunity, gut secretions, and gut-brain communication. This connection explains why digestive problems can affect mood and behavior.
For decades, it was believed that the ENS is formed from the neural crest before birth and does not change after birth. However, a groundbreaking study published in the journal eLife challenged this notion. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have presented evidence of a new developmental pathway in which ENS development continues after birth in tissue samples from mice and humans.
The study challenges decades of scientific dogma by demonstrating non-ectodermal and mesodermal origins for a significant number of enteric neurons born after birth. This discovery has profound implications for understanding the maturation and aging processes of the ENS in both health and disease.
“These results indicate for the first time that the mesoderm is an important source of neurons in the body’s second largest nervous system,” said Subhash Kulkarni, Ph.D., staff scientist at BIDMC and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. How we mature and how we age is central to understanding the health and disease of our rapidly aging population.” An increase in the proportion of mesodermal lineage neurons is a natural consequence of maturation and aging; in addition, this lineage can be expected to have some vulnerability to diseases.”
Using transgenic mouse models, high-resolution microscopy, and genetic analysis, Kulkarni and collaborators analyzed populations of ENS neurons in adult mouse and human tissue. They found that while early postnatal ENS cells belonged to the expected neural ridge lineage, as the animals matured, a new population of mesoderm-derived enteric neurons emerged.
With age, this population of mesoderm-derived neurons increased and eventually exceeded the original population of neural crest-derived neurons in aging mice. In adolescent mice, these neurons accounted for a third of all neurons in the enteric tract, and in adult mice, they accounted for half.
The discovery of a new population of intestinal neurons opens up great opportunities for improving the treatment of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Understanding the origin and development of these neurons could lead to the development of targeted therapies to address the specific vulnerabilities associated with aging and disease.
Dr. Kulkarni’s research has been praised by the scientific community. Dr. Michael Gershon, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University, said: “This study provides important new insights into the development and aging of the ENS and opens up new areas of study in neurogastroenterology.”
The results of this study not only refute long-established ideas about the ENS, but also highlight the complexity and interconnectedness of the human body. The gut-brain axis is a fascinating area of research that continues to uncover amazing connections between different body systems.
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