Understanding the architecture of our ‘second brain’

IMAGE: Nerve cells (yellow) from the same parent cell are organized in 3-D columns that extend through the layers of the gut wall.
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Credit: Reena Lasrado

Scientists have made an important step in understanding the organisation of nerve cells embedded within the gut that control its function — a discovery that could give insight into the origin of common gastrointestinal diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation.

The findings, published in Science, reveal how the enteric nervous system — a chaotic network of half a billion nerve cells and many more supporting cells inside the gut wall — is formed during mouse development. The research was led by the Francis Crick Institute, in collaboration with the University of Leuven, Stanford University, the Hubrecht Institute and the Quadram Institute Bioscience. The work was funded by the Francis Crick Institute, the Medical Research Council and the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Often known as the ‘second brain’ for its vast number of neurons and complex connectivity, the enteric nervous system has a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut. Therefore, understanding how this neural mosaic is organised could help scientists find treatments for common gastrointestinal disorders.

“The gut wall is home to many types of nerve cells which appear to be distributed randomly,” says Vassilis Pachnis, Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute. “But despite this chaos, the neural networks of the gut are responsible for well organised and stereotypic functions such as production of stomach acid, movement of food along the gut, communication with immune cells and bacteria, and relay of information to the brain. We wanted to find out how organised activity emerges from such a chaotic system.”

During development, a unique and dynamic population of cells known as progenitor cells divide to produce copies of themselves, which can then…

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