If it seems like your stomach has a mind of its own, you're not wrong. University of Cincinnati assistant professor Ashley Ross says your body is full of neurons that regulate digestion, inflammation and a host of other biological processes. In her chemistry lab in UC's College of Arts and Sciences, she is studying the role they play in the immune system.
"I'm fascinated by the concept that immune system organs have neurons, too, and they're releasing neurotransmitters just like the brain to communicate to your immune cells," she said.
Ross is using one of two National Institutes of Health grants totaling $4 million to develop tools to detect and study chemical signals between the brain and immune system.
Brain signaling is incredibly fast. You blink your eyes, take a breath, your knee jerks -- all of that is controlled by neurons firing at a rapid rate. We want to capture that as it happens."
Ashley Ross, Assistant Professor, University of Cincinnati
More than 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's, according to federal health figures. The diseases reflect an uncontrolled immune response to some trigger, but the exact causes are not completely understood. They are progressive, often lifelong afflictions with no known cure.
Hundreds of lymph nodes throughout your body filter germs and help fight infection. They are loaded with neurons that send signals to regulate your immune response. In her lab, Ross is developing new tools and sensors to record these messages in the gut. Using probes, she can measure signals at a very rapid time scale in the smallest tissue.
"That's really powerful because now we can look at the dynamics and mechanism of the transmission to understand what's going on," she said.
Ross is uniquely qualified to pursue these questions. She is an analytical chemist who has conducted extensive research in neuroscience. She holds a joint appointment in chemistry and UC's neuroscience graduate program.
"My lab is interested in inflammation and how neurons control the inflammatory response," she said. "Understanding how the nervous system plays a role could lead to new therapies."
UC professor and chemistry department head Thomas Beck said Ross has created a strong team of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and undergraduates to tackle these questions in her lab.
"It's really fascinating science -- using ultra-sensitive detection methods to study neurotransmitters," Beck said. "There is a lot of attention being paid about the interaction between the gut and the brain. The biota in your gut can impact your mood and general health."
There is still so much to learn about the communication between the nervous and immune systems, Ross said.
"It's almost overwhelming," she said. "It's not well understood how these neurons function. Researchers haven't made measurements on this time scale in intact immune organs before."