The sympathetic nervous system modulates perception and reflex responses to gut distention in humans

Gastroenterology. 1995 Mar;108(3):680-6. doi: 10.1016/0016-5085(95)90439-5.


Background/aims: Intestinal distention induces perception and gut reflexes via sympathetic and vagal pathways, but the modulatory mechanisms of such responses remain obscure. The aim of this study was to determine the effects of sympathetic nervous activity on sympathetic and vagal reflexes as well as on intestinal and somatic perception.

Methods: In 9 healthy volunteers, proximal duodenal distentions were produced in 4-mL increments and hand transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation was produced in 3-mA increments. Increasing stimuli of 1-minute duration were randomly performed at 10-minute intervals both with and without sympathetic activation (induced by means of lower body negative pressure). Intestinal and somatic perception was scored by specific questionnaires; vagal enterogastric and sympathetic intestinointestinal relaxatory reflexes were simultaneously measured by gastric and distal duodenal barostats.

Results: Sympathetic activation significantly heightened perception of intestinal distention without modifying perception of somatic stimuli (perception scores increased by 41% and -2%, respectively). The reflex responses to duodenal distention significantly increased during sympathetic activation both in the stomach and in the intestine (relaxation increased by 91% and 69%, respectively; P < 0.05 for both).

Conclusions: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system selectively increases visceral but not somatic sensitivity and enhances both vagally and sympathetically driven reflexes in the gut.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Catheterization
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intestines / physiology*
  • Lower Body Negative Pressure
  • Male
  • Muscle Tonus
  • Reflex / physiology*
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Viscera / physiology