Cracking the colon code: insights probe gut function

Pushing the last frontier: The Flinders Uni researchers cracking the colon code

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GUT INSTINCTS: Professor Marcello Costa and research assistant Lauren Keightley from Flinders University.

GUT INSTINCTS: Professor Marcello Costa and research assistant Lauren Keightley from Flinders University.


New research into how poo gets from A to B has "tremendous potential" to help treat millions of people with gastrointestinal disorders.


WHAT goes in, must come out. But have you ever sat there and wondered just what is going on in your gut when it comes to getting rid of number twos.

Now new insights into how the colon functions and actually expels its contents could provide relief for millions of Australians suffering with painful gastroinestinal disorders - from irritable bowel syndrome to constipation.

The findings from South Australian researchers - looking into how the nervous system in the gut works - have been revealed for the first time following decades of study by the team at Flinders University.

Lead researcher Professor Marcello Costa said the study explored "the last frontiers of the human body - the gastrointestinal tract".

He said the new research, which involved tracking pellets in actual guinea pigs, had "tremendous potential" for developing new diagnostic tools and treatments for gastrointestinal disorders to address problems with bowel movements leading to constipation, diarrhoea and pain.

Propulsion of intestinal contents is controlled by millions of neurons within the wall of the gut, known as the enteric nervous system. Capable of operating independently of the brain, a functioning enteric nervous system is essential for life - but exactly how it functions has been a mystery.

"Currently we treat intestinal disorders by addressing the symptoms, such as stopping-up diarrhoea or softening stools to ease constipation, but as a result of this new understanding of the neural networks of the enteric system, clinicians may be able to develop treatments that treat the cause of the problems," Prof Costa said.


By unravelling the neural circuits of the nervous system in guinea pigs and humans, Prof Costa and colleagues looked at how food is slowly mixed and propelled along the digestive tube, allowing for absorption of nutrients and excretion of waste.

"For the first time we have combined video recording intestinal movements with a pressure-measuring manometric probe, enabling movements, pressures and electrical activities to be recorded all at the same time within the colon," Prof Costa said.

"This powerful combination of techniques applied to a guinea pig colon identified several distinct neural mechanisms involved in the propulsion of colonic contents.

"This answers the deceptively simple question of how neural mechanisms within the colon manage the propulsion of bowel contents."

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