Tummy Talk: Dr. Diego Bohorquez and The Neuroscience of The Gut

Dr. Bohorquez presenting his TED Talk in 2017

WRITTEN BY Jennifer Terlouw, jlterlou@ncsu.edu

 In the final seminar of CALS SAIGE’s fall international seminar series, Dr. Diego Bohorquez, a gut-brain neuroscientist from Duke University, gave an interview and open dialogue about his experience with international research.

The crux of Dr. Bohorquez’ current work rests at the idea that the little nervous sensors in the human gut, called neuropods, use nutritional information to communicate with the brain. Neuropods, however, are more sophisticated than they appear. While they can communicate the kinds of nutrients they are receiving, they can also alter cravings and affect disease directly. Through what Dr. Bohorquez calls, “a gut and a brain in a dish,” a simple cell isolation experiment, a synapse forms between a brain cell and a neuropod. As fascinating as this link formation is, however, it isn’t without risks. The link can work both for the treatment of disease and as an access point for pathogens to make their way into the brain. Even still, the medical implications of the gut-brain link are staggering in their potential to help doctors better treat certain diseases.

A visual of a neuropod that Dr. Bohorquez presented in his 2017 TED Talk: How does our gut talk to our brain?


One woman in close acquaintance with Dr. Bohorquez related to him that, after receiving weight loss surgery, she experienced an alarming change in her taste in foods. Before the surgery, she had greatly disliked and avoided eggs with runny yolk but afterwards, she found herself craving and regularly eating that same food. Even more miraculously, her diabetic symptoms disappeared. While neither the changing of cravings nor the disappearance of her diabetes were planned effects of the weight loss surgery, they were definitely life changing. These results had a profound effect on Dr. Bohorquez’ existing interest in gut-brain connections,

“We still don’t quite know how nutritional microbes control us yet, but food is at the center of who we are.”

Dr. Bohorquez grew up in the Amazon of Ecuador, thinking he might go into the military as an officer, but he ultimately decided to work on the family farm with livestock. At age 23, he suffered a mortality crisis, worried at the sight of his father’s waning health that he might not be using his time wisely. He wondered if he was doing the best that he could do, given the finite time he has. In his own words,

“Our imaginations demand lifelong entertainment. If I’m going to entertain myself until I die, I should do something that outlives me and contributes to future scientific investigation.”

It was the intangibility of his life’s potential that motivated Dr. Bohorquez to come to the US and through his experience in agronomy, eventually be led to Neurogastroenterology. 

 Dr. Bohorquez aims to empower his own graduate students to similarly pursue their full potential. Empowering students to try things while keeping awareness of their skill levels builds competency in lab settings, according to Dr. Bohorquez’ experience. This motivational practice seems to have paid off, as in his Duke lab, Dr. Bohorquez and his students have discovered a possible extra sense related to the nutritional content of food. The Bohorquez Lab’s work on the alteration of gut-brain neural circuits in autism has also received recognition through a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award.

Just as important as professional empowerment, however, Dr. Bohorquez recommends a healthy work-life balance. He believes that chasing personal happiness and motivations in tandem with professional endeavors is the key to living a mindful life and to true success.

Friday, January 17th, Dannica Wall, a PhD student in Poultry Science, will kick off CALS SAIGE’s spring international seminar series with a talk on her experience working at a vocational school in Senegal. The seminar will take place from 1:00-2:00pm in 2405 Williams Hall and the event is open to everyone, whether you’re there to learn more about international work, just talk to other CALS students, or a mix of both!