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Connecting the brain and the pancreas

NSF Award:

Cellular Determinants of Vagal Pancreatic Circuits  (Pennsylvania State Univ University Park)

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The pancreas has two functional parts: One that releases digestive enzymes and one that releases hormones like insulin. A team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University has identified the specific brain neural pathways that control these pancreatic functions.

The new data show how these neural circuits regulate pancreatic functions and are organized in a specific manner with one group of neurons controlling enzyme secretion and another group controlling insulin secretion.

Cardiorespiratory and gastrointestinal functions are regulated by small groups of brain cells, called neurons, which are located close to each other. For many years these neurons were thought to function as simple relays without any purpose other than transmitting unelaborated sensory-motor signals.

In this NSF-sponsored project, R. Alberto Travagli, Kirsteen Browning and Tanja Babic found that each group of neurons controls specific functions and communicates with the body's organs they control by way of nerve networks that use different chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, for communication within the network.

This discovery may enable the development of selective drugs that target very specific neurocircuits in patients with specific medical conditions such as pancreatic exocrine or endocrine dysfunctions, gastrointestinal reflux disorders, functional dyspepsia or gastroparesis.

Images (1 of )

  • the pathway between the pancreas and brain: the intrapancreative ganglion receives vagal motor fibers
  • brain area where specialized neurons integrate sensory signals from internal organs (NTS) and send them to neurons that control the pancreas (DMV)
  • tanja babic, alberto travagli and kirsteen browning who did the pancreatic studies
The pathway between the pancreas and the brain.
Kirsteen N. Browning, Penn State University
Brain area where neurotransmitters control pancreatic functions.
R. Alberto Travagli, Penn State University
Researchers who revealed the neural control area for the pancreas.
Luca Toti, Penn State University

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