Rhythmic electrical activity in the stomach wall influences the brain’s spontaneous activity.
The brain is always active. Even when it is not receiving sensory input, it generates its own spontaneous activity. This activity shapes how we interpret future sensory signals and creates our inner mental world. Moreover, this spontaneous activity is not random. When a healthy volunteer lies inside a brain scanner without performing any task, his or her brain shows predictable patterns of activity. Specific groups of brain regions — often with related roles — become active at the same time as one another. Each set of regions is referred to as a resting state network.
Of course, the brain does not operate in isolation from the rest of the body. Our internal organs continuously send signals to the brain via the spinal cord and cranial nerves. Specialized cells in the stomach wall in particular produce a slow rhythmic pattern of electrical activity. Known as the gastric rhythm, this activity helps ensure that the stomach muscles contract at the correct speed for digestion. But the stomach also produces this rhythm even when empty, suggesting that it has other roles too.
To find out what these might be, Rebollo et al. placed electrodes on the abdomen of healthy volunteers lying inside brain scanners. By examining the volunteers’ spontaneous brain activity, Rebollo et al. identified a new resting state network that is active in synchrony with the gastric rhythm. The regions within this so-called gastric network are not active at the same time as each other, but instead become active in a specific sequence that is repeated at each gastric cycle. Many of the regions within the gastric network belong to other resting state networks too. Some of the regions help regulate automatic bodily functions such as heart rate, while others process information about the body’s position in space.
The existence of the gastric network suggests a link between the automatic regulation of processes such as digestion, and spontaneous brain activity. Future studies could examine whether this link impacts perception and cognition, and whether this link plays a role in disorders where the connection between the digestive system and the brain appears to be altered.
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