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We are all familiar with that uncomfortable feeling in our stomach when faced with a threatening situation. By studying rats, researchers at ETH Zurich have been able to prove for the first time that our 'gut instinct' has a significant impact on how we react to fear.

An unlit, deserted car park at night, footsteps in the gloom. The heart beats faster and the stomach ties itself in knots. We often feel threatening situations in our stomachs. While the brain has long been viewed as the center of all emotions, researchers are increasingly trying to get to the bottom of this proverbial gut instinct.

It is not only the brain that controls processes in our abdominal cavity; our stomach also sends signals back to the brain. At the heart of this dialogue between the brain and abdomen is the vagus nerve, which transmits signals in both directions -- from the brain to our internal organs (via the so called efferent nerves) and from the stomach back to our brain (via the afferent nerves). By cutting the afferent nerve fibres in rats, a team of researchers led by Urs Meyer, a member of staff in the Laboratory of Physiology & Behaviour at ETH Zurich, turned this two-way communication into a one-way street, enabling the researchers to get to the bottom of the role played by gut instinct. In the test animals, the brain was still able to control processes in the abdomen, but no longer received any signals from the other direction.

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