If your gut is telling you the difference between real sugar and an artificial sweetener, it may be right, according to a Duke study published recently in Nature Neuroscience.
Around the time the taste receptors were discovered 20 years ago, scientists tried to eliminate the taste buds in mice, but were surprised the mice not only could tell the difference between natural and artificial sugar, but they even preferred real sugar over the artificial sweeteners, despite having no sense of taste, according to the Duke press release.
Scientists finally think they know why.
“We’ve identified the cells that make us eat sugar, and they are in the gut,” said Dr. Diego Bohórquez, an associate professor of medicine and neurobiology in the Duke University School of Medicine, who led the research.
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Once eaten, food particles enter the small intestine, which is covered with velvety villi, where each villus is covered with a single layer of epithelium, but Bohórquez discovered one of the cells in the epithelium layer is unique, because it not only communicates with hormones, but also with nerves, including the vagus nerve. Bohórquez created a video to explain his discovery.
Although these cells were originally described as enteroendocrine cells because they released hormones in the gut, he called these neuropod cells, because of their ability to communicate with neurons that not only produce slow-acting hormone signals, but also fast-acting neurotransmitter signals to the brain within milliseconds, the press released added.
Bohórquez said his findings showed the neuropod cells were similar to the taste buds in our tongue or the retinal cells in our eyes that help us see colors.
“These cells work just like the retinal cone cells that are able to sense the wavelength of light,” Bohórquez noted.
“They sense traces of sugar versus sweetener and then they release different neurotransmitters that go into different cells in the vagus nerve, and ultimately, the animal knows ‘this is sugar’ or ‘this is sweetener.’”
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The press release said researchers used lab-grown organoids, which are tissue cultures derived from stem cells, to mimic the upper and lower small intestine, then conducted an experiment that showed natural sugar stimulated the neuropod cells to release the neurotransmitter glutamate while artificial sugar released a different neurotransmitter called ATP.
The scientists then utilized a technology called optogenetics to deliver light through a flexible waveguide fiber through the gut of a living mouse to “turn off” the neuropod cells, discovering when the neuropod cells were “switched off,” the mouse no longer had a preference for real sugar, the release added.
When the researchers infused sugar directly into lower parts of the intestine or the colon, it did not have the same effect as the upper part of the small intestine known as the duodenum, otherwise known as the “upper gut,” which is just past the stomach, per the release.
“We trust our gut with the food we eat,” Bohórquez said. “Sugar has both taste and nutritive value and the gut is able to identify both.”
“Many people struggle with sugar cravings, and now we have a better understanding of how the gut senses sugars (and why artificial sweeteners don’t curb those cravings),” added Dr. Kelly Buchanan, an internal medicine resident at Massachusetts General Hospital who was a co-author on the study, also noting, “We hope to target this circuit to treat diseases we see every day in the clinic.”
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“We always talk about ‘a gut sense,’ and say things like ‘trust your gut,’ well, there’s something to this,” Bohórquez said.