Aging and neural control of the GI tract. I. Age-related changes in the enteric nervous system

Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2002 Sep;283(3):G489-95. doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00091.2002.


As we enter the 21st century, the segment of the population that is the most rapidly expanding is that comprised of individuals 85 yr of age and older. Dysfunctions of the gastrointestinal (GI) system, including dysphagia, constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome are more common complaints of the elderly, yet our knowledge of the aging GI tract is incomplete. Compared with the rapid advances in the neurobiology of aging in the central nervous system, the understanding of age-related changes in the enteric nervous system (ENS) is poor. In this brief review, I recap experiments that reveal neurodegenerative changes and their functional correlates in the ENS of mice, rats, and guinea pigs. Clinical literature seems indicative of similar structural and functional age-related changes in the human ENS. Current studies that address the mechanisms underlying age-related changes in the ENS are introduced. The future directions for this field include physiological and pharmacological studies, especially at cellular and molecular levels. Research in the aging ENS is poised to make major advances, and this new knowledge will be useful for clinicians seeking to better understand and treat GI dysfunction in the elderly.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiology
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Motility / physiology
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiology
  • Peripheral Nervous System / physiology