Maryland Researchers Work to Understand ‘Gut-Brain Axis’ to Conquer Disease
A multidisciplinary UMD team is working to understand the “gut-brain-axis” (GBA) to facilitate treatments and cures for a range of chronic auto-immune inflammatory diseases as well as neurological mood disorders. Eventually they hope to develop an ingestible capsule capable of detecting, treating and monitoring such disorders.
Anyone who has ever experienced “butterflies in the stomach” before a big presentation won’t be surprised to learn there is an actual physical connection responsible for that fluttering sensation.
Neuroscientists and medical professionals call it the “gut-brain-axis” (GBA), and a better understanding of it could lead to treatments and cures for a range of chronic auto-immune inflammatory diseases like irritable bowel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, and also for neurological mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
The problem is that up until now, patients’ reports of their own symptoms were what physicians have primarily had to work with in detecting GBA-related disorders. But now, supported by $1 million in National Science Foundation funding, University of Maryland (UMD) engineers, neuroscientists, microbiologists and physicists are making significant progress in developing objective measurements to dramatically improve diagnosis and take an enormous burden off patients to accurately describe their own symptoms.
“We are converging neuroscience, molecular signaling and micro-nano devices and systems. This enables us to measure and investigate data at the interface of each junction of a simulated GBA platform—cell to cell, cell to molecule, molecule to nerve—and develop engineering methodologies to analyze and interpret it,” said Professor Reza Ghodssi of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Institute for Systems Research (ISR).
The key to the research is “biomarkers”—substances that indicate a disorder’s presence. For the GBA, that biomarker is believed to be the neurotransmitter serotonin, which spurs the nervous system into action via the vagus nerve, the physical connector between the brain and the colon.
The team is working to develop a platform that can monitor and model the real-time processing of gut microbiome serotonin activity. Its goal is to one day package the platform into an ingestible capsule capable of detecting, treating and monitoring GBA diseases.
Three recent published papers by the team detail the progress in detecting serotonin, assessing its neurological effects and sensing minute changes to the gut epithelium:
The work builds on ingestible medical device expertise that has been developed in the UMD MEMS Sensors and Actuators Laboratory, the Fischell Department of Bioengineering and the Brain and Behavior Initiative.
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