Medical Research Council (MRC) researchers have unlocked the mysteries of the nervous system responsible for proper formation and function of the gut. This new understanding has implications for treating Hirschsprung’s disease, a common disorder in newborns that requires corrective surgery in order for food to pass through the bowel and the colon.
The study shows that two important molecular switches work together to regulate the movement of crucially important cells, that will eventually become ‘enteric neurons.’ During early embryonic development these cells move from the brain to the gut, to create the ‘enteric’ nervous system. This specialised branch of the nervous system works independently of the brain and is responsible for ‘peristalsis’ of the gut – the wave-like contraction of the gut that allows the contents to be propelled through the bowel.
Failure of these migrating cells to populate the entire length of the gut causes Hirschprung’s disease, a common disorder that affects approximately one in every 4500 children. The affected portion does not expand and the contents of the bowel accumulate in the upper colon, causing swelling, abdominal pain and severe constipation, which could have serious consequences if left untreated.
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