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  • Updated 10.20.2021
  • Released 07.12.2000
  • Expires For CME 10.20.2024




Neurogastroenterology is a subspecialty of gastroenterology that overlaps with neurology. The enteric nervous system is a collection of neurones that can function independently of the central nervous system (CNS). This article discusses the neurologic manifestations of gastroenterological disorders as well as significant gastroenterological manifestations of neurologic disorders. The CNS plays a role in the pathogenesis of some gastrointestinal disorders. Management depends on the individual disorder. Some general approaches to treatment of various gastrointestinal manifestations of neurologic disease are outlined in this article. Among the specialized procedures in development, transplantation of neural stem cells is a promising therapeutic approach for disorders of the enteric nervous system.

Key points

• The connection between the gut and the brain is being increasingly recognized.

• Neurogastroenterology covers primarily the diseases of the intrinsic enteric nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract.

• Several neurologic disorders have gastroenteric manifestations.

• Likewise, gastrointestinal disorders can lead to neurologic complications.

• Knowledge of the pathomechanism and management of neurogastroenterological disorders is important for the practice of neurology.

Historical note and terminology

Neurogastroenterology is defined as neurology of the gastrointestinal tract, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas and encompasses control of digestion through the enteric nervous system, the central nervous system, and integrative centers in sympathetic ganglia (15). Neurogastroenterology has evolved as a subspecialty of gastroenterology. It deals with diseases in which a disordered interaction takes place between the nervous system and the gastrointestinal system. Neurogastroenterology covers primarily diseases of the intrinsic enteric nervous system, "brain of the gut," which is a part of the nervous system and controls motility, endocrine secretions, and microcirculation of the gastrointestinal system. Normal motility and transit through the gastrointestinal system result from a balanced interaction between the enteric nervous system and the extrinsic autonomic nervous system. Disorders of the autonomic nervous system that affect the gastrointestinal system usually manifest as disturbances of motility. Several gastrointestinal disorders including chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction were once considered functional disorders but are now recognized as organic disorders because the pathology of the enteric nervous system has been identified (40). The term "functional gastrointestinal disorders" is applied to those disorders in which no abnormal metabolic or physical processes that could account for the symptoms can be identified, for example, irritable bowel syndrome (12). Emerging concepts in neurogastroenterology implicate dysfunctions at the levels of the enteric and central nervous systems as underlying causes of the prominent symptoms of many functional gastrointestinal disorders. A consideration of psychological and psychiatric aspects of these disorders is important because they are significant in relation to projections of discomfort and pain in the digestive tract as well as stress-induced gastrointestinal disorders. Neurogastroenterological disorders include gastrointestinal manifestations of well-known neurologic disorders as well as primary disorders of the gastrointestinal system that lead to neurologic manifestations.

The relationship between the brain and the gut has been known for a long time. In the 19th century, Beumont observed that subjects with gastric fistulae who fear and anger and other disturbances of the nervous system suffered suppression of gastric secretions and delay in emptying of the stomach (02). Stress-induced changes in intestinal motility have been recognized since 1902 when Cannon, the discoverer of barium meal technique for studying gastrointestinal motility, noted changes in the flow of intestinal contents in cats confronted by growling dogs (08). Although congenital megacolon was described by Hirschsprung in 1888, the fact that dilatation is secondary to the absence of submucosal Meissner and myenteric Auerbach plexuses was not established until 60 years later. Parkinson described dysphagia and constipation as cardinal features of Parkinson disease (45). Although clinical neurologists in the 19th and 20th century recognized the relationship between the gastrointestinal system and neurologic disorders, there was a paucity of basic research on identifying the basic mechanisms involved in the transfer of information between the gut and the brain. Studies starting in the 1940s and 1950s described neurologic disorders secondary to gastrointestinal disorders. These were mainly nutritional deficiency disorders of the CNS, and the first book on this topic was published in 1974 (44).

A landmark study in 1977 showed that intracerebroventricular injection of a hypothalamic peptide, thyrotropin releasing hormone, stimulates colonic motility in the anesthetized rabbit (57). Several brain structures regulating gastrointestinal function were identified by electrophysiological techniques in the 1980s. The nucleus tractus solitarius was found to be the major projection target of vagal afferent fibers and, in turn, projected to the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, a major origin of efferent vagal fibers. Vagal afferent stimulation-evoked gastric secretion was shown to be suppressed by paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus lesion (52).

The enteric nervous system is sometimes called the “second brain” because of the diversity of neuronal cell types and complex, integrated circuits that permit it to autonomously regulate many processes in the bowel (01). The gut and the brain are highly integrated. Understanding the neural regulation of gut function and sensation makes it easier to understand the interrelatedness of emotionality, symptom-attentive behavior or hypervigilance, and pain.

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