As a direct consequence of the sophisticated arrangement of its intrinsic neurons, the gastrointestinal tract is unique among peripheral organs, in its ability to mediate its own reflexes. Neurons of the enteric nervous system are intimately associated with enteric glial cells. These supporting cells do not resemble Schwann cells, the glial cell found in all other parts of the peripheral nervous system, but share many similarities with astrocytes of the central nervous system. Ablation of enteric glial cells in adult transgenic mice has demonstrated that these cells are essential to maintain the integrity of the small intestine. Acute loss of enteric glial cells induces massive pathological changes with similarities to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and early Crohn's disease. These human conditions share some mechanistic similarities. Identification of enteric glial cell dysfunction/loss as sufficient to induce necrotic/inflammatory bowel disease may be important to understand the pathogenesis of both NEC and Crohn's disease.
Copyright 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.