Unlocking The Secrets Of The Sensory Nervous System
First Published: Investigator - July 2008
Neuroscientists at Flinders Medical Centre have discovered a series of nerves which have changed scientific understanding of how the sensory nervous system works in the gastrointestinal tract.
In 2001 Professor Simon Brookes and his team from the Flinders University Centre for Neuroscience discovered the role of nerve endings in the wall of the stomach that were first described over 70 years ago, but whose function had remained a mystery.
“It seems that these endings tell the brain when the stomach is full and are important in telling us when to stop eating,” said Professor Brookes. “They also play an important role in triggering the reflex that can cause acid reflux and heartburn.”
Since then his group has identified another type of nerve ending that is involved in signalling pain from the intestines.
“For decades it was believed that the pain nerve endings in the gut were only located outside the gut wall and that distension somehow ‘pulled’ on these nerve endings to create sensations of pain in the intestines,” said Professor Brookes.
“We have discovered that there are in fact nerve endings within the wall of the gut, which has changed our understanding of how pain is evoked by many gastrointestinal tract disorders.”
The gastrointestinal tract is the largest organ system in the human body and is responsible for breaking down food to give the body the nutrients it needs for energy, as well as waste disposal.
Many people experience unpleasant sensations from the gastrointestinal tract at some stage in their life, ranging from short-term nausea and vomiting to severe pain.
Discovering these nerves may help identify new targets for drugs which could create better outcomes for a range of conditions, including invoking a sense of fullness sooner in obesity, reducing heartburn episodes or better pain management.
Creating a fuller understanding of the nerve endings in the gut wall may also help researchers understand the mechanisms that underlie pain in other areas of the body, including headache, visceral organ and deep muscle pain.