In many ways, our brain and digestive tract are inextricably linked. Recent research has even suggested that bacteria in our gut may have an impact on some neurological diseases. Modeling these complex interactions in animals like mice is difficult because their physiology differs greatly from that of humans. Researchers have created an “organs-on-a-chip” system that mimics interactions between the brain, liver, and colon to help researchers better understand the gut-brain axis.
Using the organs-on-a-chip system, the researchers were able to simulate the effects of gut microbes on healthy brain tissue and tissue samples from Parkinson’s disease patients. Short-chain fatty acids, produced by gut microbes and transported to the brain, were discovered to have very different effects on healthy and diseased brain cells.
While short-chain fatty acids are generally beneficial to human health, they can exacerbate certain brain pathologies associated with Parkinson’s disease, such as protein misfolding and neuronal death.
In a paper published last year, researchers used a microphysiological system to model interactions between the liver and the colon. Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), molecules produced by microbes in the gut, were discovered to worsen autoimmune inflammation associated with ulcerative colitis under certain conditions in that study. SCFAs, including butyrate, propionate, and acetate, can also benefit tissues by increasing immune tolerance, accounting for about 10% of the energy we get from food.
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