A pioneering study conducted by researchers at Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) – a partner of The University of Tulsa’s Oxley College of Health Sciences – has made significant strides in understanding the elusive gut-brain connection, a complex relationship that has long puzzled scientists due to the difficulty of accessing the body’s interior.
The study, “Parieto-occipital ERP indicators of gut mechanosensation in humans,” appears in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Communications.
The research team successfully used a minimally invasive vibrating capsule to measure neural responses to gastrointestinal sensation, providing a novel approach to study this intricate connection. Participants in the study included healthy adult male and female volunteers ages 18-40. The researchers found that the volunteers were able to sense the stimulation of the vibrating capsule under two conditions: normal and enhanced. The enhanced stimulation condition led to improved perceptual accuracy, faster detection of the stimulation, and reduced variability in reaction time, indicating the potential for refining this method further. This is a significant breakthrough as it demonstrates the feasibility of this novel approach to studying perception of gut feelings.
The study also revealed that capsule stimulation induced late neural responses, termed “gastric evoked potentials,” in specific areas of the brain. 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.
“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. Sahib Khalsa, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at LIBR, and 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 potential clinical implications for the results of this study are substantial,” said Khalsa, who also serves as a TU associate professor of community medicine. “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.
“This would provide a much-needed tool for assessing gut sensation in these conditions and could lead to more personalized and effective treatment strategies. It also opens up the possibility of identifying perceptual or biological mediators of successful treatment, which could serve as predictive markers for future therapeutic interventions.”
The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and The William K. Warren Foundation and was conducted at LIBR between September 2019 and February 2022.