Magazine article Newsweek

A Literal Window into the Second Brain in Our Stomachs; the Enteric Nervous System of the Gut Is Largely a Mystery, So a Group of Researchers Devised a Way to See Directly into the Stomachs of Lab Mice

Magazine article Newsweek

A Literal Window into the Second Brain in Our Stomachs; the Enteric Nervous System of the Gut Is Largely a Mystery, So a Group of Researchers Devised a Way to See Directly into the Stomachs of Lab Mice

Article excerpt

Byline: Zoe Schlanger

We know a bit about the human stomach. We know, for example, that it's lined with an elaborate web of neurons--five times more nerve cells than the spinal cord--that send information directly to our brain, and that it can also command our gastrointestinal system without talking to our brain. This "enteric nervous system" is so elaborate and functionally independent that scientists have dubbed it the "second brain."

But there's a lot about our second brain we don't know, like what it looks like when all those neurons are firing. That means we are largely unaware of how it reacts to various pharmaceuticals, or what goes wrong when someone has a gastrointestinal disease like irritable bowel syndrome.

But that may be about to change thanks to Duke University researchers who devised a way to peer into the enteric nervous system. They surgically implanted tiny, transparent pieces of durable glass into the abdomens of mice, genetically altered so that their neurons glowed green while firing. They also installed teensy 3-D printed pieces of titanium to hold the mice's intestines in place, so the neuron activity would be easier to watch while the mice went about the relatively noisy and chaotic process of digesting food.

The rigs were a success; a paper published in the online journal Nature Communications describes how the team was able to watch the glowing green neurons firing. …

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