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Engineers discover brain-gut link

Cutting-edge technology has been developed by MIT engineers, to investigate the intricate relationship between the brain and the gut.

A major breakthrough in understanding the complex relationship between the brain and the gut has been achieved by researchers from MIT. Innovative technology, utilizing specialized fibers embedded with sensors and light sources for optogenetic stimulation, has allowed the manipulation of neural circuits connecting these two vital organs in mice.

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

Under the leadership of Polina Anikeeva, a professor at MIT and director of the K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center, an electronic interface has been developed by the research team. This interface employs 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 renders this breakthrough genuinely remarkable is the capacity to attain millisecond precision in the measurement of neuronal signals and the manipulation of gut function through optogenetics. Specific behaviors in mice, such as seeking out rewards or feeling satiated, were triggered through optogenetic stimulation of gut cells by the researchers.

“The exciting aspect here is that technology is now available to drive gut function and behaviors such as feeding. More notably, the ability to commence accessing the crosstalk between the gut and the brain with the millisecond precision of optogenetics exists, and it can be carried out in behaving animals.” It is explained by Anikeeva,

The implications of this research are extensive. By unraveling the connections between the brain and the gut, scientists aim to gain insights into the correlation between digestive health and neurological conditions like autism and Parkinson’s disease.

For example, a higher prevalence of gastrointestinal dysfunction in autistic children has been observed in studies, 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 achievement of the team 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. Significant attention has been garnered by their pioneering work, which was recently published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.

“For a long time, it was believed that the brain is a tyrant that sends output into the organs and controls everything. But now it is known that there is a lot of feedback back into the brain, and this feedback potentially controls some of the functions that have previously been exclusively attributed to central neural control.” It is concluded by Anikeeva,

Promising opportunities for further exploration of the gut-brain connection and unlocking new possibilities for managing neurological disorders lie ahead in the future. As the boundaries of our understanding are continually pushed by scientists, the intricate web of communication between the brain and gut may hold the key to many health breakthroughs.

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