Meet your second brain

YOU’RE facing a big decision – whether that’s to go into a business partnership with a friend, say, or put money into a promising new idea. It’s a tough call, as there are very few hard facts to go on. So it’s time to use your second brain. Don’t worry, you’ve probably used your
second brain countless times before; it’s just that, when you did, you more likely referred to it as ‘gut instinct’. New research is showing that this age-old phrase is surprisingly
accurate. We really do have a second brain that influences our judgement, and much else besides. Known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) – enteric meaning ‘to do with intestines’ – it’s an extensive network of brain-like neurons and neurotransmitters wrapped in and around our gut. Most of the time, we’re unaware of its existence, as its prime
function is what one would expect: managing digestion. Yet the presence of all that brain-like complexity is no coincidence. The ENS is in constant communication with the brain in our skull via the body’s own information superhighway – the vagus nerve. And it’s now becoming clear that all those signals flowing back and forth can influence our decisions, mood and general well-being.

     “Your gut has capabilities that surpass all your other organs,
and even rival your brain,” says ENS specialist Dr Emeran Mayer of the University of California, Los Angeles, who is author of a new
account of the science of the ENS, The Mind-Gut Connection. “This second brain is made up of 50-100 million nerve cells, as many as are contained in your spinal cord.” Researchers worldwide are now racing to explore the
implications. The results are revealing the key role of the ENS in everyday health – and also what happens when it malfunctions. Links are emerging between the ENS and a host of disorders ranging from obesity and clinical depression to rheumatoid arthritis and even Parkinson’s disease. That, in turn, is opening up new approaches to treating these conditions, with some quite promising results already appearing.

 The ENS and the brain-gut connection look set to become a major focus for 21st-century medicine. Yet the first hints of its
importance actually emerged over a century ago, when researchers began making some strange discoveries about our digestive system. Experiments by British doctors on animal
organs revealed that the stomach and intestines have the bizarre ability to work autonomously, processing food even after they’ve been removed from the rest of the body. The ENS, it seemed, was clearly far more sophisticated than just a bag of nerves surrounding various organs, though the reason for its complexity was far from clear. Then, in the 1980s, researchers made another startling discovery: the ENS is awash with neurotransmitters, the biochemicals that are vital to brain activity. By the late 1990s, researchers began talking of the ENS as the body’s second brain. That led to some misconceptions, says Mayer: “There was a lot of hype around the idea that the ENS may be the seat of our unconscious mind.” The reality is more nuanced and involves
another of the key targets of current medical research: the microbiome. This vast array of bacteria, viruses and other organisms is found throughout the body, but the biggest and most diverse collection is in the gut. Like the ENS, these microbes are principally
The Enteric Nervous System
(ENS) centres on the vagus nerve
and the digestive tract
ABOVE RIGHT: Stimulating the vagus nerve
externally via an ear clip can help with depression
focused on the complex business of dealing with digestion. But their behaviour in the gut is constantly monitored by the ENS, and the information is relayed via the vagus nerve straight to the brain. A clue to the key role the state of our gut plays
in our well-being comes from the fact that around 80 per cent of the vagus nerve is dedicated to reporting information to the brain. Suddenly, the idea of having a ‘gut instinct’ no longer seems so ridiculous. We’ve all experienced sensations like queasiness and
butterflies when faced with challenges, or felt ‘sick to the stomach’ when things don’t go well. According to Mayer, the brain labels memories of such situations with the effect they had on our gut. The result is a rapid-access library that helps
assess new challenges based – literally – on gut feeling rather than conscious, rational thought. That’s not to say you should always go with
your gut. “The quality, accuracy and underlying biases of this gut-brain dialogue vary between different individuals,” says Mayer. While fast, its response can also be warped by other life events or even what you ate. And, sometimes, it’s just plain wrong. Faced with a huge financial decision, cool-headed analysis is a better bet than a snap gut decision.

 It’s becoming increasingly clear that the ENS influences our brain at deeper, more subtle levels as well. Evidence is emerging that the ENS influences our mood, and even plays a role in depression. Exactly how it does this is still unclear, but researchers are currently focusing their efforts on one of the many neurotransmitters that are found in the ENS: serotonin. Imbalances in serotonin have been implicated
in depression for a long time, which is why it is the target of many drugs that have been developed to treat the condition, such as Prozac. Yet around 95 per cent of the body’s serotonin is produced not by the brain, but by the ENS, and is affected by what we eat, the state of our microbiome and the signals sent along the vagus nerve to the brain.

By stimulating the gut to produce serotonin, it’s possible to affect eating behaviour, alleviate anxiety and even enhance brain functioning

This mind-brain connection is now leading to
new approaches to treating depression. Studies have found that sending electrical pulses along the vagus nerve can influence the brain’s use of serotonin, helping to alleviate severe depression. Until recently, fitting patients with the
necessary pulse-generating implant required invasive surgery. But researchers at Harvard University, the USA, and the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, China, have now developed a device that stimulates the vagus nerve externally, at the point where it’s most easily accessible: the ear. Tests of the clip-on device with 34 patients
with clinical depression has already produced promising results, says research team member                                               


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