Profiles in Brain Science: Diego Bohorquez, PhD
The research of Diego Bohorquez, PhD, focuses on the connections between two seemingly isolated systems: the gut and the brain. In this Profiles in Brain Science interview, Bohorquez talks to us about how the got interested in this interplay, discusses how these two essential systems co-evolved, and offers some public speaking advice based on his own experience giving a TED talk this April.
You describe yourself as a “gut-brain neuroscientist.” Can you describe to a non-expert what that means? What interests you the most about this area of research?
It simply means that my focus is to understand how the gut and the brain exchange information through neural circuits and networks (as supposed to via hormones and the bloodstream).
The possibility of healing the brain from outside the brain is alluring. Today, there are no effective (or free of undesirable side effects) therapies to treat the brain and the peripheral nervous system is an avenue to influence the brain without directly acting on it.
I often tell the story of a friend that had gastric bypass surgery. It was 2006, I was in grad school getting a PhD in nutrition and already doing research in the gut. She told me what happened to her body after the surgery. There were a few things that surprised me - in her own words she said that 1) she lost ~40% of her body weight by 6 months, 2) within a week her diabetes disappeared, and 3) most shockingly, she said that before the surgery she couldn’t even look at sunny side up eggs. It will make her queasy. But after the surgery, she said not only do I have sunny side up eggs for breakfast but I actually crave the runny yolk.
What implications do the gut-brain connections have for treating nutrition and behavior related to eating? What implications do they have for treating neurological conditions?
At the most basic level, in the first multicellular organism, it is evident that we evolved around food and the need to eat. Therefore, it is the connection between the gut and the brain that evolved to help us make sense of what we eat as well as satisfy our needs and desires of nutrients. Today, it is evident that altering the gut milieu (e.g. microbiome) alters brain function and development. Dissecting the neural networks of this connection and their ability to convey signals from food into electrical pulses that alter the mind, would enable developing functional foods that can be used to treat the brain from the gut.
Bohorquez takes a selfie with the legendary James Watson, PhD.
Your research also discovered a new way that gut sensor cells communicate with the brain. Can you briefly describe what you found, and what those findings mean for future research?
The processing of sensory information from food in the gut was traditionally studied from a hormone perspective. What my colleagues and I discovered was that the same cells that produce those hormones in the gut in response to food, they also form synaptic links with neurons. These gut sensor cells (a.k.a. enteroendocrine cells) sense food and bacteria, and by connecting with neurons the transmission of the signals is direct, faster, bi-directional, allows for neuroplasticity (memory of stimulus), and unexpectedly also provides a path for pathogens to go from the surface of the gut to the brain bypassing the blood brain barrier. In an effort to trace the connectivity of gut sensors with neurons, I used a rabies virus as a vector to trace the connections and discovered that rabies can infect enteroendocrine cells and through them gain access to neurons.
You gave a TED talk about your research this April. What was that experience like? Do you have any advice for your colleagues about how to improve your public speaking?
Yes, the talk was part of a TED fellowship I received this past year, which has not been released online yet. Being part of the TED fellows community is a transformational experience. Although on my own I had trained extensively in communication, the TED fellows program provides intensive training in communication. It made me realize how multidisciplinary is the science and art of public speaking. From a hand gesture to the clothes you wear, the effectiveness of your message is affected by several factors. Some that one can certainly improve by practicing are learning how to design a sentence in which each word counts towards the final message.
One way to improve public speaking I can offer is to keep the audience in mind while communicating with intent. Some exceptional instructors on the public speaking that I can recommend are Nancy Duarte (DUARTE Inc. Visual storytelling), Robert McKee (Screenwriting coach and guru on STORY Structure), and Victoria Labalme (a sensei of body language and message delivery).
Has your research affected your own personal behavior or eating habits? How so?
It has certainly enabled me to enjoy food more. It has also increased my awareness of how food affects life, from a single cell’s ability to build a nucleotide to a civilization's legends and leadership. Food is at the core of who we are. The only reason single cell organisms organized into multicellular creatures was to take on bigger prey. They only evolved once in the sense that they kept the same features of digesting and absorbing food, and evolve to co-exist with other cells to form bigger organisms. Keeping this frame as context, makes one realize how deep in our genes is the need and desire to process food. From milliseconds to generations what we eat affects who we are.
What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
Photography (see below)
A photo Bohorquez took in his native Ecuador, at Cuyabeno National Park, about 100 miles east from where he grew up.
Where can people read more about you and your work?
Profiles in Brain Science is a rotating interview series ies focusing on people at Duke who study or treat the human brain and nervous system, including neurologists, neurobiologists, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists and others. If you work in one of these areas and would like to be the subject of a future interview, or you have someone to suggest for a future entry, email Will Alexander at William.Alexander@duke.edu.