gut. brain.

What do you visualize when you read the phrase Gut-Brain Axis? Or Brain-Gut Connection?

I picture very active brains communicating with very active intestines. Or is it the other way around? Both. It’s a two-way, busy connect especially when you consider the wandering nerve, aka, the vagus nerve. Think: 2-way, information highway. The vagus nerves are paired cranial nerves (CN X) and happen to be my favorite of all the nerves.  Because it is the longest nerve in the body it moves alongside heart and lungs and goes through all the organs of the digestive tract, connecting brain to gut.

I enjoy the challenge of capturing Veronica’s likeness while I work her profile.  I organize and sketch in the brain. The small area of my drawing is detailed into a collaged map of El Paso,TX,  where my cousin lives.

I have fun with the photo ↑ and strategically place color pencils to direct attention to the brainstem, the area of the brain I am working to understand.  I imagine the space to be like a facility loaded with chemicals and chemical messengers / hormones and neurotransmitters. Think: Food intake. Signals and controls. Many and complex. (FYI – purple pencil points to vagus nerve start.)

Some of the hormones involved include adipoectin (a protein hormone that modulates glucose regulation and fatty acid oxidation), and leptin (made by fat cells and decreases appetite).

Veronica, during our initial conversation, noted ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite. If I understand correctly, it is primarily released in the stomach and signals hunger to the brain. It also plays a role in determining how quickly hunger returns after a meal. And it promotes fat storage. After my surgery, she says, no more ghrelin. No more! What does this mean?  Forever? I ask.  I don’t know, she answers. And now you eat because??
I must live!
Ah…survival!

Side note: The hormones that play a role in obesity, do they also play a role in anorexia?

I haven’t brought the microbiome in yet. But I will. Now when I hear gut-brain, I also think of microbes.  FYI…they can influence hunger and satiety.

Anyway…I’m still laying ground work…which is both complicated to figure out and complicated to draw. Both my brain and my hands are keeping busy.

One more thing…
In early posts I highlight the brown adipose tissue (BAT) and the white adipose tissue (WAT). Now I study and set in subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) located under the skin and visceral adipose tissue (VAT).

In the image above, ↑ I enhance (darker area) the greater omentum (cool name! for an organ) , an example of VAT. It looks like lace, doesn’t it?  This apron of fatty tissue, connective tissue and lymphatics,  comes down from the stomach and stretches over the intestines. The greater omentum, aka, Policeman of the abdomen, might just be the first line of defense against toxins or infections (microbes).

BTW…yes, there is also a lesser omentum…

Meanwhile… drawing circles/making connections.


Keeping a note:
Amylin is a hormone, co-stored and co-secreted with insulin in response to nutrients. It promotes satiety by mediating brain function, including appetite inhibition.

Amylin also plays a role in neural regeneration. It helps regulate glucose metabolism and modulates inflammation. I pull it aside and note it here because of a possible link to Alzheimer’s Disease (Type II Diabetes).

portrait of veronica – new work

I don’t talk about this too much (if at all) but I do believe all of our organs are in constant communication with each other…and with us. Well…they’re not really separate from us. Nor are we separate from our environment…nor from each other.


As many times as I’ve drawn the skeletal system, I feel I should have it memorized by now. I don’t. Every body is unique.

Next month will be 4 years since Veronica had bariatric surgery.

I still have the x-ray she sent me of her stomach, post surgery.  I didn’t (and still don’t) recognize the organ though I recognized surrounding tissue. Within minutes of her sending the photo, my cousin and I were on the phone talking. I was surprised (and still am) to learn they’d removed 3/4 of her stomach. I remember 2 thoughts (I kept to myself): How is it possible? And what about the vagus nerve?! I still wonder about the latter.

That evening she told me about the numerous health complications being overweight can cause including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart failure. And we know obesity can lead to a number of cancers. I recall Veronica saying she was on the cusp of becoming diabetic.

She spoke about the side effects of her surgery as well as possible future complications including lockjaw and osteoporosis. Ouch! Is it worth the risk? She responded with a definitive Yes!

Not only was she concerned about her health, she also didn’t like the way she looked. It’s not me! It’s not me! 

Veronica used to call me because she was studying art history. We talked art. With this one phone call I learned a lot about my cousin. I’m sure neither of us imagined a study coming from the conversation. Though I did hold on to the x-ray.

Composition layout.

Fast forward to early this summer…
I mention in an earlier post, a meeting with Dr. Joe Alcock whose area of research is the microbiome. I tell him I want to learn more/work the subject. I’m thinking Microbiome 101 or a…let me introduce you to…sort of composition. Instead he suggests a focus on the obesity aspect.

Putting something into context is really the best way to learn.

Did I mention Veronica is almost done with school? And if things go her way,  she’ll be a surgical technician in the field of bariatrics. On a recent visit to El Paso, we set time aside to meet.  We talk and then I photograph and outline her.

Once again, she shares with me how it felt to be in a heavy body.  And then she moves on to describe the changes since the surgery; her feet are smaller and no more snoring. She happily notes her participation in kickboxing, cross-fit and yoga. I  ran! A 5K!  She has no regrets.

She tells me about the soda she occasionally allows herself. I have to be careful. Carbonation, she explains, expands the stomach. Yes, she’s gained back some of the weight.

What do you miss? What was your favorite (crave) food? Macaroni and cheese, Mexican style, canned milk, tomato sauce, butter and lots of cheese. This detail makes its way into the study.

What influences your food choices? Could it be microbes?

The plan includes a portrait of Veronica while I/you learn more about gut microbes and their link to obesity. (I’ve had a curiosity about microbes and auto-immune diseases for a good while.)

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 95 million adults (in the USA) live with obesity (47.0% are Hispanic, 46.8% non-Hispanic black, 37.9% are non-Hispanic whites and 12.7% non Hispanic Asians).


Joe connected with me during a time when my work was at Sky Harbor Airport.  We finally met in person during the run of my solo exhibition at the UofA medical school. He introduced me to the human microbiome. And because he comes from an evolutionary  medicine background, I am understanding the idea of adaptation, especially where health and disease are concerned. Joe believes fat has a defense function. It helps prevent bacteria from invading us. Obesity has more to do with our bodies relationship to the microbial world.

I have come to the conclusion that microbes are responsible for everything!

Did I mention I feel like I am in over my head…a good sign.

Joe Alcock has a podcast I access directly via SoundCloud → EvolutionMedicine. 
He has several episodes on the topic of obesity. The format usually includes a conversation between him and a colleague.  For me, this sort of back and forth talk makes the complicated stuff a little more accessible.


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