He wants to delve deeper, to examine how the microbiome interacts with these cells and can change some of the gut hormones, and investigate the symbiotic relationship between gut bacteria and their human hosts.
This all connects with ongoing work to explore the gut-brain axis, comprising the behaviour of nerves that run from the brain into the gut, with nerve endings located very close to enteroendocrine cells. The gut-brain axis therefore affects higher brain function, in both conscious and unconscious ways.
Professor Keating wants to discover how nerve endings close to enteroendocrine cells can be linked to a raft of human health disorders – from thermal control to heart rate and blood pressure, but also to mood and mental health disorders.
“The signals being sent to the brain from the gut could be affected by the food we eat, but could also be affected by environmental factors – things such as pollution or stress – because the outside world has access to, and affects, these cells,” he says.
“It opens up a whole new area of exploration. If we can understand how these signals work, then we can explore how they lead to or modify specific human health disorders – and lead us towards new ways of treating these disorders.”
The big next step is to identify gut-brain links to higher brain functions, through understanding what triggers nerves that then produce reactions in the brain. Professor Keating believes this could unlock an improved understanding of mental health disorders.
“It’s a gigantic exploration which provides my team with the opportunity to focus on the ‘blue sky’ ideas and to consider the bigger picture about the impact of what we study. This means focusing on collaborations that are already great strengths here at Flinders – and also to identify world leaders in the field and work with them to get answers to some of our really big questions,” says Professor Keating.
“Our investigations so far have produced remarkable results – but there is so much more exciting work ahead of us. It’s as though we have pulled a thread, and so much more is unravelling than we ever anticipated.”