Expression and developmental regulation of oxytocin (OT) and oxytocin receptors (OTR) in the enteric nervous system (ENS) and intestinal epithelium

J Comp Neurol. 2009 Jan 10;512(2):256-70. doi: 10.1002/cne.21872.


Although oxytocin (OT) and oxytocin receptor (OTR) are known for roles in parturition and milk let-down, they are not hypothalamus-restricted. OT is important in nurturing and opposition to stress. Transcripts encoding OT and OTR have been reported in adult human gut, and OT affects intestinal motility. We tested the hypotheses that OT is endogenous to the enteric nervous system (ENS) and that OTR signaling may participate in enteric neurophysiology. Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction confirmed OT and OTR transcripts in adult mouse and rat gut and in precursors of enteric neurons immunoselected from fetal rats. Enteric OT and OTR expression continued through adulthood but was developmentally regulated, peaking at postnatal day 7. Coincidence of the immunoreactivities of OTR and the neural marker Hu was 100% in the P3 and 71% in the adult myenteric plexus, when submucosal neurons were also OTR-immunoreactive. Co-localization with NeuN established that intrinsic primary afferent neurons are OTR-expressing. Because OTR transcripts and protein were detected in the nodose ganglia, OT signaling might also affect extrinsic primary afferent neurons. Although OT immunoreactivity was found only in approximately 1% of myenteric neurons, extensive OT-immunoreactive varicosities surrounded many others. Villus enterocytes were OTR-immunoreactive through postnatal day 17; however, by postnatal day 19, immunoreactivity waned to become restricted to crypts and concentrated at crypt-villus junctions. Immunoelectron microscopy revealed plasmalemmal OTR at enterocyte adherens junctions. We suggest that OT and OTR signaling might be important in ENS development and function and might play roles in visceral sensory perception and neural modulation of epithelial biology.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Enteric Nervous System / anatomy & histology
  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Intestinal Mucosa / anatomy & histology
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Oxytocin / genetics
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Oxytocin