When we eat protein, our brain tells our pancreas to release insulin. Professor Kevin Murphy will study the signals sent between the gut and the brain in response to eating protein. This will help us to understand how the brain knows when to tell the pancreas to release insulin, and the best way to make this happen. In the future, this could lead to new treatments that help people with Type 2 diabetes to better manage their condition.
Background to research
Carbohydrates have the biggest impact on our blood sugar levels, but protein can also cause blood sugar to rise. This triggers an increase in insulin production. This means diets high in protein could help some people with Type 2 diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels. But these diets can be difficult to stick to.
A nerve in the brain – called the vagal nerve – acts like an information superhighway, connecting the brain and the gut. Professor Murphy has discovered this nerve detects protein that has been broken down by the gut, causing the brain to signal to the pancreas that it’s time to release insulin.
Professor Murphy wants to work out if we can use this signalling system to mimic the effects of a high protein diet, and trick our body into making more insulin.
Professor Murphy and his team want to better understand how signals from the gut trigger insulin release and lower blood glucose levels. The team knows that certain molecules can activate the vagal nerve, and some of them are made when we digest protein. To find out more, they will study the effects of these molecules on vagal nerve cells and in mice. They want to know if the molecules can help the brain and pancreas to ‘talk’ to each other.
Professor Murphy will then use specialised microscopes to study nerve activity, to find out exactly where the molecules work inside the gut in order to drive the biggest increase in insulin release from the pancreas.
Finally, the team will test the most promising molecule in mice, in the most effective area of the gut, to see if it’s able to boost insulin production and improve blood sugar levels.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
This study will help scientists to figure out how connections between the gut and the brain could be used to help people with Type 2 diabetes produce more insulin. New treatments could help to slow down the progression of Type 2 diabetes, to help people avoid more invasive treatments – like insulin injections – and potentially reduce their risk of diabetes-related complications.