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New research finds human gut-brain connection

  • Using a minimally invasive vibrating capsule, researchers have been able to measure and understand neural responses governing this intricate connection

The vibrating capsule method could be a novel, yet promising, approach to studying gut feelings and disorders of gut-brain interaction
The vibrating capsule method could be a novel, yet promising, approach to studying gut feelings and disorders of gut-brain interaction (Unsplash)

The human gut-brain connection has been a topic of interest in the past few years. And books and podcasts have made it a part of mainstream conversations. Yet, the actual nature of the relationship between the two organs has left scientists baffled for long because of the challenge to gain access to the body’s interior. In this scenario, a new study by researchers at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) in Tulsa, Oklahoma has made significant advances in understanding the complex relationship between the gut and the brain. They achieved this by getting participants to swallow a minimally invasive vibrating capsule that was developed by Vibrant Ltd.

In the research titled, Parieto-occipital ERP indicators of gut mechanosensation in humans, the team successfully had participants swallow the vibrating capsule to measure neural responses during gastrointestinal stimulation, providing a novel approach to study this intricate connection. The researchers found that the volunteers were able to sense the stimulation of the vibrating capsule under two conditions: normal and enhanced. The enhanced simulation condition led to improved perceptual accuracy, faster detection of the stimulation, and reduced variability in reaction time. This is a significant breakthrough as it demonstrates the feasibility of this novel approach to studying gut feelings.

The study was conducted at LIBR between September 2019 and February 2022 and participants included healthy adult male and female volunteers ages 18-40. The study was led by Sahib Khalsa, MD, PhD, director of Clinical Operations at LIBR and associate professor at Oxley College of Health Sciences at the University of Tulsa.

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“We were able to localize most of the capsule stimulations to the gastroduodenal segments of the digestive tract using abdominal X-ray imaging,” said Dr. Khalsa, who is also senior author of the study. “This finding is crucial as it provides a more precise understanding of where these gut-brain interactions are originating.”

The researchers also discovered the “gastric evoked potential”, a late neural response in certain areas of the brain specifically induced by capsule stimulation. These neural responses increased in amplitude depending on the intensity of the stimulation and were significantly correlated with perceptual accuracy. This discovery provides a new way to measure and understand the neural processes governing the gut-brain connection.

Talking about the potential clinical implications for the results of this study, Dr. Khalsa said, “The vibrating capsule method could transform the clinical approach to disorders of gut-brain interaction, including eating disorders and certain gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or functional dyspepsia.”

The research was published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Nature Communications. In addition to Dr Khalsa, the co-authors on the study were PhD student Ahmad Mayeli, and postdoctoral scholar Obada Al Zoubi from LIBR. The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and The William K. Warren Foundation.

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