Relationships between neurokinin receptor-expressing interstitial cells of Cajal and tachykininergic nerves in the gut

J Cell Mol Med. Jan-Mar 2006;10(1):20-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1582-4934.2006.tb00288.x.


The so-called interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) are distributed throughout the muscle coat of the alimentary tract with characteristic intramural location and species-variations in structure and staining. Several ICC sub-types have been identified: ICC-DMP, ICC-MP, ICC-IM, ICC-SM. Gut motility is regulated by ICC and each sub-type is responsible for the electrical activities typical of each gut region and/or muscle layer. The interstitial position of the ICC between nerve endings and smooth muscle cells has been extensively considered. Some of these nerve endings contain tachykinins. Three distinct tachykinin receptors (NK1r, NK2r and NK3r) have been demonstrated by molecular biology. Each of them binds with different affinities to a series of tachykinins (SP, NKA and NKB). In the ileum, SP-immunoreactive (SP-IR) nerve fibers form a rich plexus at the deep muscular plexus (DMP), distributed around SP-negative cells, and ICC-DMP intensely express the SP-preferred receptor NK1r; conversely a faint NK1r-IR is detected on the ICC-MP and mainly after receptor internalization was induced by agonists. ICC-IM are never stained in laboratory mammals, while those of the human antrum are NK1r- IR. RT-PCR conducted on isolated ileal ICC-MP and gastric ICC-IM showed that these cells express NK1r and NK3r. Colonic ICC, except those in humans, do not express NK1r-IR, at least in resting conditions. Outside the gut, NK1r-IR cells were seen in the arterial wall and exocrine pancreas. In the mouse gut only, NK1r-IR is present in non-neuronal cells located within the intestinal villi, so-called myoid cells, which are c-kit-negative and alpha-smooth muscle actin-positive. Immunohistochemistry and functional studies confirmed that ICC receive input from SP-IR terminals, with differences between ICC sub-types. In the rat, very early after birth, NK1r is expressed by the ICC-DMP and SP by the related nerve varicosities. Studies on pathological conditions are few and those on mutant strains practically absent. It has only been reported that in the inflamed ileum of rats the NK1r-IR ICC-DMP disappear and that at the peak of inflammatory conditions ICC-MP are NK1r-IR. In the ileum of mice with a mutation in the W locus, ICC-DMP were seen to express c-kit-IR but not NK1-IR, and SP-IR innervation seems unchanged. In summary, there are distinct ICC populations, each of them under a different tachykininergic control and, likely, having different functions. Further studies are recommended at the aim of understanding ICC involvement in modulating/transmitting tachykininergic inputs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Digestive System / metabolism*
  • Digestive System / pathology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / growth & development
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / metabolism
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / pathology
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Muscle, Smooth / cytology
  • Muscle, Smooth / innervation
  • Muscle, Smooth / metabolism*
  • Myeloid Cells / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-kit
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Tachykinin / metabolism*
  • Substance P / metabolism
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Receptors, Tachykinin
  • Substance P
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-kit