Scientists Discover a New Role of Glial Cells in the Nervous System of the Gut

In the US, about 30 million people are living with gut motility disorders. The medical research aims to study possible causes of gut motility disorders, find mechanisms of the development of disease and find ways to treat these conditions. Also, the research aims to study how the intestinal nervous system functions and how it influences the motility functions of the digestive system.

Stomach Pain

Stomach Pain

Gut motility disorders are a group of disorders in which the normal movements of peristalsis that help move the food along the digestive system, are impaired. There is a wide range of these disorders that affect one or more parts of the digestive system and some of them may have multifactorial causes.

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Usually, they can be due to a muscular or a neurological issue or lack of coordination between the muscles and the nerves in the gut. Also, they can be caused by dysfunction of the intestinal nervous system.

Study and its findings

Recently, a paper was published by the researchers at Michigan State University in which scientists discovered a new function of glial cells in the intestinal nervous system. They found out that glial cells play a significant role in detecting and modulating the nerve pathways in the enteric nervous system. Previously, it was known in medicine that these cells only provided a supporting function to neuronal cells in the intestinal neural circuits.

According to researchers involved in this paper, most people are not even aware that there is a nervous system in their gut and its functions can be independent of the central nervous system.

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The intestines contain an extensive network of glial cells and neuronal cells

Neurons are involved in conducting electrical impulses throughout the nervous system. In contrast to that, glial cells are not directly involved in the conduction of electrical impulses. However, they do play a role in electrical conduction in the gut.

In this study, the finding that glial cells do, in fact, alter the electrical impulses in neurons is rather new. It means that glial cells play a significant role in electrical impulse conduction in the intestinal nervous system by modulating it.

Researchers learned that glial cells act in a very specific way to influence the electrical signals carried by neurons. Their function plays a key role in ensuring that electrical activity is functioning normally and they make significant changes in electrical impulse conduction. Their newly discovered role changes the previous scientific understanding of how the intestinal nervous system functions and what role do glial cells play in it.

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Significance of this discovery

This discovery will help understand the functioning of the intestinal nervous system from a new perspective and also, may help find new targets for pharmaceutical research. Also, it may help in understanding the process of development of disease in disorders in which there is dysfunction of the enteric nervous system like motility disorders. It will possibly direct research towards finding treatments for these disorders too. Although scientists believe that it will be too early to foresee this finding’s potential in treating motility and other intestinal disorders, they believe that the scientific aim should be understanding the role of glial cells in the intestinal nervous system completely before research can be directed towards finding potential treatments.

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Authors

The authors of this study are Muhammad M. Ahmed Zai, Brian D.Gulbransen, and Luisa Seguella from the Department of Physiology at Michigan State University.

References

Circuit-specific enteric glia regulate intestinal motor neurocircuits, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Accessed October 7, 2021, https://www.pnas.org/content/118/40/e2025938118

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