Tension and stretch receptors in gastrointestinal smooth muscle: re-evaluating vagal mechanoreceptor electrophysiology

Brain Res Brain Res Rev. 2000 Nov;34(1-2):1-26. doi: 10.1016/s0165-0173(00)00036-9.


Electrophysiological and morphological analyses of vagal mechanoreceptors in the gut wall suggest conflicting conclusions. Electrophysiology has distinguished a single general class of ending in smooth muscle, one characterized as an 'in series' tension receptor. Morphology, in contrast, has characterized two distinct specializations of vagal afferent endings in the muscle wall of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These two structures differ in terms of their target tissues, terminal architectures and regional distributions; they also develop on different ontogenetic timetables and depend on different trophic support in the muscle wall. On the basis of these features, we have proposed that one of the putative mechanoreceptors, the intraganglionic laminar ending (IGLE), has characteristics of a tension receptor and the other, the intramuscular array (IMA), has features of a stretch or length receptor. In a functional analogy with striated muscle proprioceptors, IGLEs should have similarities to Golgi tendon organs, whereas IMAs should have equivalencies with muscle spindle afferents. The present survey re-examines the recording analyses in light of the structural observations. This review indicates that previous electrophysiological studies are too inconclusive to refute the inference that the vagus supplies two distinct types of mechanoreceptors to the muscle wall of the GI tract. Multiple methodological constraints and sources of variance have limited the resolution of electrophysiological experiments. Specifically, these experiments have conventionally used distension stimuli that confound tension and stretch. In addition, sampling strategies have biased recording experiments towards a focus on one type of ending, the IGLE. Furthermore, putative functional properties (e.g., broad tuning) of vagal mechanoreceptors suggest that distinguishing two recording patterns will require exacting protocols. Combining a recognition of the methodological difficulties that have limited electrophysiological analyses with an understanding of the structural features of the endings, however, suggests several critical electrophysiological experiments with the resolution to distinguish two classes of response profiles. Until such experiments can be conducted, sensory physiology's axiom that 'function varies with form', taken together with a re-assessment of the existing data, suggests that the vagus nerve supplies stretch receptors as well as tension receptors to the wall of the GI tract.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Digestive System / innervation*
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Gastrointestinal Motility*
  • Humans
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology*
  • Muscle, Smooth / innervation
  • Muscle, Smooth / physiology
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*