Scientists study how the brain talks to other organs

Research to understand the Autonomic Nervous System

Venkat Raman

Do you know that almost every emotion activates your nervous system which in turn impacts on the functioning of the brain and other essential organs of your body?

That was of course a simplistic question, but it illustrates the need to take cognisance of the importance of the nervous system.

The Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) of University of Auckland is playing a key role in a Programme of the US-based National Institute of Health (NIH) that aims to understand and use the autonomic nervous system to treat disease.

ABI Director Professor Peter Hunter said that the $20 million plus programme, called, ‘Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC), recognises that all organs of the human body are innervated by the autonomic nervous system.

A chilling example

“For example, when you have a fright, you release adrenalin into your body, your heart rate speeds up and all sorts of things change, partly because you are releasing hormones into the blood stream, and partly because your neural system is activating through neural transmission to your organs,” Professor Hunter said.

This has been a relatively neglected area of neuroscience, as researchers have focused on the higher cognitive functions of the brain, he said.

But a year ago, the NIH funded a number of experimental groups to map out neural innervation looking at how peripheral nerves send out electrical signals to a particular organ in response to external and internal factors such as stress, diet, exercise and disease.

Potential to treat diseases

Part of NIH’s motivation is a growing awareness that modulation of these electrical, control signals via therapies and devices is a potentially powerful way to treat many diseases and conditions such as hypertension, heart failure, gastrointestinal disorders, type II diabetes, inflammatory disorders, and more.

But more knowledge is needed to fully understand how these therapies control internal organ function, Professor Hunter said.

“In addition, the design of more effective neuro-modulation therapies requires knowing exactly what nerves one must stimulate and how they must be stimulated to achieve the desired effect on organ function,” he said.

Mapping digital info

A key aspect of the SPARC project is mapping and organising all the digital information generated, which would be the area of involvement for ABI.

Professor Hunter and his team (which includes Dr Bernard de Bono and Dr David Nickerson from the ABI, as well as a number of ABI software developers) are one of three groups commissioned to form the Data and Resource Center working on digital components of SPARC.

“Our role is to map data as it is collected and not only from different organs but also from the different animal species used in physiological experiments,” Professor Hunter said.
Five-Year Project

Over five years, ABI will be mapping all the data as it is produced and developing web portals that will enable researchers to interact with the data and start developing computer models.

“This builds on the infrastructure and modelling work we’ve already developed and it will enable us to acquire new skills and experience with neural pathways,” Professor Hunter said.
University Physiologist Professor Julian Paton, who has spent 30 years studying the autonomic nervous system and is collaborating with ABI, said that modulating the activity of nerves controlling our organs has huge potential for addressing unmet clinical need for many cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

“The SPARC programme will provide essential information and, for the first time, reveal how the brain talks to every organ of our body which can be subsequently mimicked by devices to treat diseases,” he said.


Photo Caption:

Professor Peter Hunter

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