Novel functional roles for enteric glia in the gastrointestinal tract

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012 Nov;9(11):625-32. doi: 10.1038/nrgastro.2012.138. Epub 2012 Aug 14.


Enteric glia are a unique class of peripheral glial cells within the gastrointestinal tract. Major populations of enteric glia are found in enteric ganglia in the myenteric and submucosal plexuses of the enteric nervous system (ENS); these cells are also found outside of the ENS, within the circular muscle and in the lamina propria of the mucosa. These different populations of cells probably represent unique classes of glial cells with differing functions. In the past few years, enteric glia have been found to be involved in almost every gut function including motility, mucosal secretion and host defence. Subepithelial glia seem to have a trophic and supporting relationship with intestinal epithelial cells, but the necessity of these roles in the maintenance of normal epithelial functions remains to be shown. Likewise, glia within enteric ganglia are activated by synaptic stimulation, suggesting an active role in synaptic transmission, but the precise role of glial activation in normal enteric network activity is unclear. Excitingly, enteric glia can also give rise to new neurons, but seemingly only under limited circumstances. In this Review, we discuss the current body of evidence supporting functional roles of enteric glia and identify key gaps in our understanding of the physiology of these unique cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Enteric Nervous System / cytology
  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Motility / physiology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / cytology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / innervation*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Secretions / physiology
  • Neuroglia / cytology
  • Neuroglia / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology