Integrated Neural and Endocrine Control of Gastrointestinal Function

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2016;891:159-73. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-27592-5_16.


The activity of the digestive system is dynamically regulated by external factors, including body nutritional and activity states, emotions and the contents of the digestive tube. The gut must adjust its activity to assimilate a hugely variable mixture that is ingested, particularly in an omnivore such as human for which a wide range of food choices exist. It must also guard against toxins and pathogens. These nutritive and non-nutritive components of the gut contents interact with the largest and most vulnerable surface in the body, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. This requires a gut sensory system that can detect many classes of nutrients, non-nutrient components of food, physicochemical conditions, toxins, pathogens and symbionts (Furness et al., Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 10:729-740, 2013). The gut sensors are in turn coupled to effector systems that can respond to the sensory information. The responses are exerted through enteroendocrine cells (EEC), the enteric nervous system (ENS), the central nervous system (CNS) and the gut immune and tissue defence systems. It is apparent that the control of the digestive organs is an integrated function of these effectors. The peripheral components of the EEC, ENS and CNS triumvirate are extensive. EEC cells have traditionally been classified into about 12 types (disputed in this review), releasing about 20 hormones, together making the gut endocrine system the largest endocrine organ in the body. Likewise, in human the ENS contains about 500 million neurons, far more than the number of neurons in the remainder of the peripheral autonomic nervous system. Together gut hormones, the ENS and the CNS control or influence functions including satiety, mixing and propulsive activity, release of digestive enzymes, induction of nutrient transporters, fluid transport, local blood flow, gastric acid secretion, evacuation and immune responses. Gut content receptors, including taste, free fatty acid, peptide and phytochemical receptors, are primarily located on EEC. Hormones released by EEC act via both the ENS and CNS to optimise digestion. Toxic chemicals and pathogens are sensed and then avoided, expelled or metabolised. These defensive activities also involve the EEC and signalling from EEC to the ENS and the CNS. A major challenge is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the integrated responses of the gut, via its effector systems, the ENS, extrinsic innervation, EEC and the gut immune system, to the sensory information it receives.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Endocrine System / physiology*
  • Enteric Nervous System / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Hormones / metabolism
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Reflex / physiology*


  • Gastrointestinal Hormones