The neuroscience behind ‘gut feelings’

Fight or flight? We've all been there. Now we have an understanding of how it works.

  • There is such a thing in neuroscience as a 'gut feeling.'
  • We don't quite know what it's saying yet, but we have an idea.
  • "Gut signals are transmitted at epithelial-neural synapses through the release of … serotonin."

Have you ever had a 'gut feeling?' That moment when you just knew? Did you ever wonder why that was? Research is starting to make inroads towards an answer.

A recent study led by Melanie Maya Kaelberer of Duke along with a team of others looked at mice to determine how the stomach communicated with the brain. Historically, it was believed that the stomach communicated with the brain indirectly — typically through something called neuropeptide signaling (peptides are like proteins but smaller; neurons use neuropeptides to communicate); however, the results from this study suggest something much more direct, much more nuanced, and a little bit more complicated.

Let's break that down — first by quoting the National Institute of Health: "Epithelial cells form barriers that separate different biological compartments in the body." They have a role in regulating what is communicated and what is carried between these different compartments.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that is released when a signal arrives from somewhere else in the body and acts as a bridge for the signal to move from one neuron to the next.

What makes the result of the study noteworthy is the fact that — in addition to neuropeptides — "further studies revealed that enteroendocrine cells activate sensory neurons within tens to hundreds of milliseconds, a time scale typical of synaptic transmission rather than neuropeptide signaling."

In other words: something arrived in the stomach and it was known, fast. Think of the speed with which your body lets you know that a fly has landed in your skin and think what it means that your body knows what's in its stomach at comparable speeds. (We know that gut bacteria responds to exercise, but this study raises an asterisk of a question all its own: how quickly does gut bacteria respond to exercise in real time?) It's hypothesized that the reason why this happens is to relay where something is in the gut and how it exists in space-time — whether it's just arrived, how it's immediately reacting to the digestive properties of the stomach, and so on.

Benjamin Hoffman and Ellen A. Lumpkin found the results intriguing, writing in a review of the study that it led them to wonder, "What are the molecular mechanisms of neurotransmitter release in enteroendocrine cells?" Who specifically mediates this synaptic transmission? And how are these neuron signals modulated in a stomach full of acid, anyway? What happens when someone has an intestinal disorder?

Perhaps the answer is already known to someone deep within the depths of their gut.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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