For good health, trust your gut
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 federal 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,” she said. “We want to capture that as it happens.”
Ross’ work demonstrates UC’s commitment to research as described in its strategic direction called Next Lives Here.
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.
Ross got her doctorate in analytical chemistry at the University of Virginia. She came to UC because of its strong reputation in research, she said.
“UC chemistry is really well known, particularly in electrochemistry,” Ross said.
“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 ultrasensitive 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.”
Beck said Ross’ interdisciplinary work is becoming the norm at UC and in chemistry.
“Chemists interact with people in the UC College of Medicine and biomedicine, drug design, protein science,” he said. “There’s been a big government push to study neuroscience. Dr. Ross is at the boundary between chemical detection and neuroscience, which is an exciting area.”
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.”
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