Serotonin signalling in the gut--functions, dysfunctions and therapeutic targets

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013 Aug;10(8):473-86. doi: 10.1038/nrgastro.2013.105. Epub 2013 Jun 25.


Serotonin (5-HT) has been recognized for decades as an important signalling molecule in the gut, but it is still revealing its secrets. Novel gastrointestinal functions of 5-HT continue to be discovered, as well as distant actions of gut-derived 5-HT, and we are learning how 5-HT signalling is altered in gastrointestinal disorders. Conventional functions of 5-HT involving intrinsic reflexes include stimulation of propulsive and segmentation motility patterns, epithelial secretion and vasodilation. Activation of extrinsic vagal and spinal afferent fibres results in slowed gastric emptying, pancreatic secretion, satiation, pain and discomfort, as well as nausea and vomiting. Within the gut, 5-HT also exerts nonconventional actions such as promoting inflammation and serving as a trophic factor to promote the development and maintenance of neurons and interstitial cells of Cajal. Platelet 5-HT, originating in the gut, promotes haemostasis, influences bone development and serves many other functions. 5-HT3 receptor antagonists and 5-HT4 receptor agonists have been used to treat functional disorders with diarrhoea or constipation, respectively, and the synthetic enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase has also been targeted. Emerging evidence suggests that exploiting epithelial targets with nonabsorbable serotonergic agents could provide safe and effective therapies. We provide an overview of these serotonergic actions and treatment strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / drug therapy*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Gastrointestinal Motility / physiology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / innervation
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology
  • Humans
  • Serotonin / physiology*
  • Serotonin Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Serotonin Agents
  • Serotonin