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Intestines contain even more nerve cells than the spinal cord

08. April 2022

We already know that the gut, the brain and the psyche are connected, but we don’t yet know exactly how this works. The topic has a lot of potential.

Gerhard Rogler, having “butterflies in my stomach” is just one of many idioms that reflect the connection between the brain and the gut. What does science have to say about this?
Yes, this is actually correct. The connection between the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve, and the bowel has already been proved. There is a so-called “gut-brain axis”. The walls of the intestines contain even more nerve cells than the spinal cord. These communicate with the brain and vice versa. Their tasks include sending pain signals and regulating intestinal function: the sight of tasty food makes our bowel activity increase – and that’s before we even start eating. We are coming to understand that gut bacteria are not passive; they produce messenger substances that also occur in the brain.

How do they influence the brain?
We know, for instance, that patients with depression are deficient in certain strains of intestinal bacteria. A number of studies are currently investigating whether faecal transplants can reduce depression. It has already been proven that faecal transplants can help children with autism. The connection between gut bacteria and the psyche has been established. Unfortunately, though, we don’t yet know how it works. Conversely, we know that stress impacts the gastrointestinal tract through the gut-brain axis and can cause changes in bowel activity and a sensation of abdominal pain. Stress can accordingly trigger bouts of inflammation in patients with chronic inflammatory bowel disease. There is some exciting data which suggests that reducing stress and stimulating the vagus nerve can improve chronic inflammatory bowel disease.

Responsible Department

Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology