You know the feeling. That knot in your stomach when things go awry. That sick feeling that comes over you when you receive bad news. Those ‘butterflies’ you experience when you’re nervous. In fact, we feel most strong emotions in our gut.
We’re learning that the connection between our emotions and our gut is much more complicated than we first thought and that what goes on in our digestive system affects our brain in complex ways not yet fully understood.
That’s because the gut contains a nervous system of its own called the enteric nervous system (ENS). Also known as the body’s ‘second brain’, the ENS is an extensive network of 100 million nerve cells that line the full length of the gastrointestinal tract. Although the main role of the ENS is digestion, the messages that travel back and forth between it and the central nervous system (CNS) also affect the immune system, cognition and mood.
ENS dysfunction is often linked to digestive disorders and the role this second brain of ours plays in neurological disorders has also become increasingly evident. Neuronal connections and the immune system might provide conduits that allow diseases acquired in the gut to spread to the brain.
For example, diseases such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease are examples of disorders with both gastrointestinal and neurological consequences.
And, these signals between the brain and the gut are profoundly influenced by the gut microbiome, the vast community of bacteria that colonizes the gastrointestinal tract. The bacteria produce neurotransmitters and metabolites that influence the gut-brain axis through several complex pathways.
Research on the gut–brain axis of disease is reasonably new and further investigation is necessary to fully understand the connection and implications on our physical and mental health.
One of the key pillars of Nova’s research is to increase our understanding of ENS involvement in intestinal and neuroinflammatory conditions. We believe our findings could help with early detection, as well as possible prevention and treatment options.
We recently announced that we’re establishing a serotonin research centre in partnership with FourthWall Testing. Their organization is a state-of-the-art COVID-19 molecular lab that services the film and sports industries.
Serotonin is a key hormone that enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. What is very perplexing is that only 5 per cent of serotonin is produced in the brain; 95 per cent is produced in the gut (intestines). The centre will include a data bank to support large-scale studies of the microbiome, its relationship to serotonin activity and behavioral metrics as they relate to ASD. The centre will also measure serotonin levels in urine and blood. An initial focal point will be an observational study of individuals diagnosed with ASD and fragile X syndrome (FXS). Personal data within the centre’s bank can be accessed by the families of patients with ASD and FXS.
We believe our findings will have broad medical applications and help shed research light on the gut-brain connection and its potential role in the development and treatment response of chronic neuroinflammatory disorders.