The enteric nervous system and gastrointestinal innervation: integrated local and central control

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:39-71. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_3.


The digestive system is innervated through its connections with the central nervous system (CNS) and by the enteric nervous system (ENS) within the wall of the gastrointestinal tract. The ENS works in concert with CNS reflex and command centers and with neural pathways that pass through sympathetic ganglia to control digestive function. There is bidirectional information flow between the ENS and CNS and between the ENS and sympathetic prevertebral ganglia.The ENS in human contains 200-600 million neurons, distributed in many thousands of small ganglia, the great majority of which are found in two plexuses, the myenteric and submucosal plexuses. The myenteric plexus forms a continuous network that extends from the upper esophagus to the internal anal sphincter. Submucosal ganglia and connecting fiber bundles form plexuses in the small and large intestines, but not in the stomach and esophagus. The connections between the ENS and CNS are carried by the vagus and pelvic nerves and sympathetic pathways. Neurons also project from the ENS to prevertebral ganglia, the gallbladder, pancreas and trachea.The relative roles of the ENS and CNS differ considerably along the digestive tract. Movements of the striated muscle esophagus are determined by neural pattern generators in the CNS. Likewise the CNS has a major role in monitoring the state of the stomach and, in turn, controlling its contractile activity and acid secretion, through vago-vagal reflexes. In contrast, the ENS in the small intestine and colon contains full reflex circuits, including sensory neurons, interneurons and several classes of motor neuron, through which muscle activity, transmucosal fluid fluxes, local blood flow and other functions are controlled. The CNS has control of defecation, via the defecation centers in the lumbosacral spinal cord. The importance of the ENS is emphasized by the life-threatening effects of some ENS neuropathies. By contrast, removal of vagal or sympathetic connections with the gastrointestinal tract has minor effects on GI function. Voluntary control of defecation is exerted through pelvic connections, but cutting these connections is not life-threatening and other functions are little affected.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiology
  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / innervation*
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Reflex
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology