Gastrointestinal hormones and the dialogue between gut and brain

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The landmark discovery by Bayliss and Starling in 1902 of the first hormone, secretin, emerged from earlier observations that a response (pancreatic secretion) following a stimulus (intestinal acidification) occurred after section of the relevant afferent nerve pathway. Nearly 80 years elapsed before it became clear that visceral afferent neurons could themselves also be targets for gut and other hormones. The action of gut hormones on vagal afferent neurons is now recognised to be an early step in controlling nutrient delivery to the intestine by regulating food intake and gastric emptying. Interest in these mechanisms has grown rapidly in view of the alarming global increase in obesity. Several of the gut hormones (cholecystokinin (CCK); peptide YY3–36 (PYY3–36); glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1)) excite vagal afferent neurons to activate an ascending pathway leading to inhibition of food intake. Conversely others, e.g. ghrelin, that are released in the inter-digestive period, inhibit vagal afferent neurons leading to increased food intake. Nutrient status determines the neurochemical phenotype of vagal afferent neurons by regulating a switch between states that promote orexigenic or anorexigenic signalling through mechanisms mediated, at least partly, by CCK. Gut–brain signalling is also influenced by leptin, by gut inflammation and by shifts in the gut microbiota including those that occur in obesity. Moreover, there is emerging evidence that diet-induced obesity locks the phenotype of vagal afferent neurons in a state similar to that normally occurring during fasting. Vagal afferent neurons are therefore early integrators of peripheral signals underling homeostatic mechanisms controlling nutrient intake. They may also provide new targets in developing treatments for obesity and feeding disorders.

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