Recent clinical and experimental evidence has evoked the concept of the gut–brain axis to explain mutual interactions between the central nervous system and gut microbiota that are closely associated with the bidirectional effects of inflammatory bowel disease and central nervous system disorders1–4. Despite recent advances in our understanding of neuroimmune interactions, it remains unclear how the gut and brain communicate to maintain gut immune homeostasis, including in the induction and maintenance of peripheral regulatory T cells (pTreg cells), and what environmental cues prompt the host to protect itself from development of inflammatory bowel diseases. Here we report a liver–brain–gut neural arc that ensures the proper differentiation and maintenance of pTreg cells in the gut. The hepatic vagal sensory afferent nerves are responsible for indirectly sensing the gut microenvironment and relaying the sensory inputs to the nucleus tractus solitarius of the brainstem, and ultimately to the vagal parasympathetic nerves and enteric neurons. Surgical and chemical perturbation of the vagal sensory afferents at the hepatic afferent level reduced the abundance of colonic pTreg cells; this was attributed to decreased aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) expression and retinoic acid synthesis by intestinal antigen-presenting cells. Activation of muscarinic acetylcholine receptors directly induced ALDH gene expression in both human and mouse colonic antigen-presenting cells, whereas genetic ablation of these receptors abolished the stimulation of antigen-presenting cells in vitro. Disruption of left vagal sensory afferents from the liver to the brainstem in mouse models of colitis reduced the colonic pTreg cell pool, resulting in increased susceptibility to colitis. These results demonstrate that the novel vago-vagal liver–brain–gut reflex arc controls the number of pTreg cells and maintains gut homeostasis. Intervention in this autonomic feedback feedforward system could help in the development of therapeutic strategies to treat or prevent immunological disorders of the gut.
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