Review Article | Published:

The bowel and beyond: the enteric nervous system in neurological disorders

Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology volume 13, pages 517528 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The enteric nervous system (ENS) is large, complex and uniquely able to orchestrate gastrointestinal behaviour independently of the central nervous system (CNS). An intact ENS is essential for life and ENS dysfunction is often linked to digestive disorders. The part the ENS plays in neurological disorders, as a portal or participant, has also become increasingly evident. ENS structure and neurochemistry resemble that of the CNS, therefore pathogenic mechanisms that give rise to CNS disorders might also lead to ENS dysfunction, and nerves that interconnect the ENS and CNS can be conduits for disease spread. We review evidence for ENS dysfunction in the aetiopathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease. Animal models suggest that common pathophysiological mechanisms account for the frequency of gastrointestinal comorbidity in these conditions. Moreover, the neurotropic pathogen, varicella zoster virus (VZV), unexpectedly establishes latency in enteric and other autonomic neurons that do not innervate skin. VZV reactivation in these neurons produces no rash and is therefore a clandestine cause of gastrointestinal disease, meningitis and strokes. The gut–brain alliance has raised consciousness as a contributor to health, but a gut–brain axis that contributes to disease merits equal attention.

Key points

  • The enteric nervous system (ENS) is the largest component of the autonomic nervous system and is uniquely equipped with intrinsic microcircuits that enable it to orchestrate gastrointestinal function independently of central nervous system (CNS) input

  • Because many neurotransmitters, signalling pathways and anatomical properties are common to the ENS and CNS, pathophysiological processes that underlie CNS disease often have enteric manifestations

  • Neuronal connections and the immune system might provide conduits that allow diseases acquired in the gut to spread to the brain

  • Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, autistic spectrum disorders, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and varicella zoster virus (VZV) infection are examples of disorders with both gastrointestinal and neurological consequences

  • VZV reactivations from latency in enteric and other autonomic neurons that lack cutaneous projections are occult causes of zoster without rash that lead to gastrointestinal disease, meningitis and strokes

  • Research on the gut–brain axis of disease is reasonably new, concepts are changing rapidly, and further investigation is much needed

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Acknowledgements

M.R. receives research support from Ivan and Phyllis Seidenberg, the Paul Marks Scholars Program, and the American Gastroenterological Association – Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Research Scholar Award in Neurogastroenterology. M.D.G. is supported by grant NS15547 from the NIH and the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.

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  1. Department of Pediatrics, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, 622 West 168th Street, New York, New York 10032, USA.

    • Meenakshi Rao
  2. Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, 630 West 168th Street, New York, New York 10032, USA.

    • Michael D. Gershon

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The authors contributed equally to the review.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Michael D. Gershon.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nrgastro.2016.107

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