The relationship between longitudinal and circular muscle tension in the mouse colon and mechanosensory excitatory synaptic input to neurons in the superior mesenteric ganglion (SMG) was investigated in vitro. Electrical activity was recorded intracellularly from SMG neurons, and muscle tension was simultaneously monitored in the longitudinal, circumferential, or both axes. Colonic intraluminal pressure and volume changes were also monitored simultaneously with muscle tension changes. The results showed that the frequency of fast excitatory postsynaptic potentials (fEPSPs) in SMG neurons increased when colonic muscle tension decreased, when the colon relaxed and refilled with fluid after contraction, and during receptive relaxation preceding spontaneous colonic contractions. In contrast, fEPSP frequency decreased when colonic muscle tension increased during spontaneous colonic contraction and emptying. Manual stretch of the colon wall to 10-15% beyond resting length in the circumferential axis of flat sheet preparations increased fEPSP frequency in SMG neurons, but stretch in the longitudinal axis to 15% beyond resting length in the same preparations did not. There was no increase in synaptic input when tubular colon segments were stretched in their long axes up to 20% beyond their resting length. The circumferential stretch-sensitive increase in the frequency of synaptic input to SMG neurons persisted when the colonic muscles were relaxed pharmacologically by nifedipine (2 microM) or nicardipine (3 microM). These results suggest that colonic mechanosensory afferent nerves projecting to the SMG function as length or stretch detectors in parallel to the circular muscle layer.