Researchers explore role of “second brain” on mental states, diseases

Source: Scientific American, The Second Brain, Nature Medicine

Recent research is exploring how the body’s “second brain,” also known as the enteric nervous system consisting of neurons embedded within the gut, has a much larger job than just handling digestion. This lower brain, in conjunction with the brain in our skulls, determines our mental states and effects diseases throughout the body.

Though much of its work has to do with daily digestion processes, the second brain also controls gut behavior independently of the brain. Additionally, the second brain also signals stress responses for our brain (in the form of nervousness or butterflies in the stomach.)

Conversely, other depression treatments that target the mind can affect the gut, and many antidepressants create gastrointestinal side effects. Serotonin produced by the enteric nervous system has also been shown to counteract bone deterioration during osteoporosis and has been linked to autism.

Other researchers are considering how bacteria in the gut “communicate” with enteric nervous system cells and the implications of this communication for psychiatric treatments.