The researchers found that a type of nerve cell found in the gut of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans is specialized to detect when bacteria are ingested; once that occurs, the neurons release a neurotransmitter that signals the brain to halt locomotion. The researchers also identified new ion channels that operate in this specialized nerve cell to detect bacteria.
“In terms of a precise mechanism of how the gut signals back up to the brain, it was unclear what was going on,” says Steven Flavell, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “Food is something that really motivates this animal, so people have studied this for a long time, but the mechanism of how food ingestion is detected by the nervous system to drive a behavioral change, that had really been missing.”
Flavell is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Dec. 20 issue of Cell. Jeffrey Rhoades, a former technical assistant in the Picower Institute, is the paper’s first author.