The neural gut-brain axis consists of viscerosensory and autonomic motor neurons innervating the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Sensory neurons transmit nutrient-related and non-nutrient-related information to the brain, while motor neurons regulate GI motility and secretion. Previous research provides an incomplete picture of the brain nuclei that are directly connected with the neural gut-brain axis, and no studies have thoroughly assessed sensory-motor overlap in those nuclei.
Our goal in this study was to comprehensively characterize the central sensory and motor circuitry associated with the neural gut-brain axis linked to a segment of the small intestine. We injected a retrograde (pseudorabies; PRV) and anterograde (herpes simplex virus 1; HSV) transsynaptic viral tracer into the duodenal wall of adult male rats. Immunohistochemical processing revealed single- and double-labeled cells that were quantified per nucleus. We found that across nearly all brain regions assessed, PRV + HSV immunoreactive neurons comprised the greatest percentage of labeled cells compared with single-labeled PRV or HSV neurons.
These results indicate that even though sensory and motor information can be processed by separate neuronal populations, there is neuroanatomical evidence of direct sensory-motor feedback in the neural gut-brain axis throughout the entire caudal-rostral extent of the brain. This is the first study to exhaustively investigate the sensory-motor organization of the neural gut-brain axis, and is a step toward phenotyping the many central neuronal populations involved in GI control.