Neurology Central

Advances in enteric neurobiology – the ‘brain’ in the gut in health and disease

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Subhash Kulkarni is an Assistant Professor in Medicine at the Center of Neurogastroenterology at Johns Hopkins University (MD, USA). His lab studies the pathways by which the enteric nervous system (ENS) develops and is maintained in adults. Subhash is also interested in what kind of disorders and cellular mechanisms are associated with the development of different diseases that affect not only gut function but also CNS function.
In this interview, Subhash speaks to us about the mini-symposium he co-chaired at SfN Neuroscience (3–7 November 2018, San Diego, CA, USA) on the advances in enteric neurobiology. He also discusses the challenges involved in the field of enteric neurobiology and how these challenges could be overcome.

1. You’ve co-chaired a mini-symposium here at SfN Neuroscience on the advances in enteric neurobiology – the ‘brain’ in the gut in health and disease. Could you provide us with an overview about this?

The ENS comprises of the largest nervous system outside of the brain. In normal human adults, it has approximately 500 million neurons, which by some calculations is a larger population of neurons than the spinal cord. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most understudied regions of neurosciences. There is a lot that the ENS regulates and governs. Apart from gut motility, it also regulates immunity, intestinal secretions and hormones. Beyond the gut, it has an effect on various metabolic functions, as well as CNS behaviors.

The idea for this mini-symposium was to present the ENS as a growing and extremely significant part of neuroscience to the larger SfN community. Within this mini-symposium, we featured talks on recent advances that break set dogma and further our understanding of the ENS biology. ENS biology has traditionally been an extremely small field but in recent years, there have been many new investigators, such as myself, who have been trying to understand questions that have not been looked at in significant depth. We showcased the work of six of these investigators within the symposium and they spanned from developmental ENS biology in zebrafish; my own talk that looked at mechanisms of maintenance of ENS in adults; and a talk on enteric glial biology (which is an extremely understudied area – most glial scientists don’t know there are enteric glia). Then we had people who spoke about enterochromaffin (EC) cells, which are extremely important in the mechanosensing and chemosensing in the gut, and have a direct link to the brain – so the brain communicates with EC cells in the gut through the gut–brain axis.

Finally, we wanted to understand how the ENS shapes and reshapes the immune function in the gut, but also how the immune function shapes the ENS back. Additionally, we were interested in how this crosstalk between the ENS and immune cells, which is regulated by the microbiota, is deformed during aging and causes GI disorders as well as CNS disorders.

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