Cholinergic signaling in the gut: a novel mechanism of barrier protection through activation of enteric glia cells

Surg Infect (Larchmt). 2014 Aug;15(4):387-93. doi: 10.1089/sur.2013.103. Epub 2014 May 14.


Background: Enteric glia cells (EGCs) play an important role in maintaining proper intestinal barrier function. We have shown that vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) increases EGC activation, which is associated with better gut barrier integrity. Enteric neurons communicate with EGCs through nicotinic cholinergic signaling, which may represent a pathway by which VNS activates EGCs. This study sought to define further the mechanism by which VNS prevents intestinal barrier failure using an in vitro model. We hypothesized that a nicotinic cholinergic agonist would increase EGC activation, prevent intestinal nuclear factor kappa-B (NF-κB) activation, and result in better intestinal barrier function.

Methods: Cultured EGCs were exposed to the nicotinic cholinergic agonist nicotine. Expression of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) was measured by immunoblot to determine changes in EGC activation. Caco-2 cells were grown to confluence and incubated alone or in co-culture with EGCs. Cells were then stimulated with Cytomix for 24 h in the presence or absence of nicotine, and barrier integrity was assessed by permeability to 4-kDa FITC-dextran. Changes in phosphorylated inhibitor of NF-κb (P-IκBα) and phosphorylated NF-κB (P-NF-κB) were assessed by immunoblot.

Results: Stimulation with nicotine resulted in EGC activation, as demonstrated by an increase in GFAP expression. Cytomix stimulation increased permeability in Caco-2 cells cultured alone or with EGCs. Treatment of stimulated Caco-2/EGC co-cultures with nicotine reduced permeability similar to control. Nicotine failed to prevent barrier permeability in Caco-2 cells alone. Co-culture of stimulated Caco-2 cells with nicotine-activated EGCs prevented Cytomix-induced increases in P-IκBα and P-NF-κB expression.

Conclusion: A pharmacologic nicotinic cholinergic agonist increased EGC activation and improved intestinal epithelial barrier function in an in vitro model of intestinal injury. Nicotine-activated EGCs appear to modulate barrier function by preventing the activation of the NF-κB pathway. Therapies aimed at activating EGCs may have important clinical applications for improving intestinal barrier function after injury.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cholinergic Agonists / metabolism*
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Epithelial Cells / immunology
  • Epithelial Cells / physiology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / immunology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology*
  • Humans
  • NF-kappa B / metabolism
  • Neuroglia / drug effects*
  • Neuroglia / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Signal Transduction*


  • Cholinergic Agonists
  • NF-kappa B