The digestive neuronal-glial-epithelial unit: a new actor in gut health and disease

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013 Feb;10(2):90-100. doi: 10.1038/nrgastro.2012.221. Epub 2012 Nov 20.


The monolayer of columnar epithelial cells lining the gastrointestinal tract--the intestinal epithelial barrier (IEB)--is the largest exchange surface between the body and the external environment. The permeability of the IEB has a central role in the regulation of fluid and nutrient intake as well as in the control of the passage of pathogens. The functions of the IEB are highly regulated by luminal as well as internal components, such as bacteria or immune cells, respectively. Evidence indicates that two cell types of the enteric nervous system (ENS), namely enteric neurons and enteric glial cells, are potent modulators of IEB functions, giving rise to the novel concept of a digestive 'neuronal-glial-epithelial unit' akin to the neuronal-glial-endothelial unit in the brain. In this Review, we summarize findings demonstrating that the ENS is a key regulator of IEB function and is actively involved in pathologies associated with altered barrier function.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / physiology
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Enteric Nervous System / cytology
  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / pathology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / cytology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology*
  • Homeostasis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa / cytology
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiology*
  • Neuroglia / cytology
  • Neuroglia / physiology*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Wound Healing / physiology