Mechanisms underlying the gut–brain communication: How enterochromaffin (EC) cells activate vagal afferent nerve endings in the small intestine

Nick J. Spencer, Melinda A. Kyloh, Lee Travis, Timothy J. Hibberd

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Abstract

How the gastrointestinal tract communicates with the brain, via sensory nerves, is of significant interest for our understanding of human health and disease. Enterochromaffin (EC) cells in the gut mucosa release a variety of neurochemicals, including the largest quantity of 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) in the body. How 5-HT and other substances released from EC cells activate sensory nerve endings in the gut wall remains a major unresolved mystery. We used in vivo anterograde tracing from nodose ganglia to determine the spatial relationship between 5-HT synthesizing and peptide-YY (PYY)-synthesizing EC cells and their proximity to vagal afferent nerve endings that project to the mucosa of mouse small intestine. The shortest mean distances between single 5-HT- and PYY-synthesizing EC cells and the nearest vagal afferent nerve endings in the mucosa were 33.1 ± 14.4 µm (n = 56; N = 6) and 70.3 ± 32.3 µm (n = 16; N = 6). No morphological evidence was found to suggest that 5-HT- or PYY-containing EC cells form close morphological associations with vagal afferents endings, or varicose axons of passage. The large distances between EC cells and vagal afferent endings are many hundreds of times greater than those known to underlie synaptic transmission in the nervous system (typically 10–15 nm). Taken together, the findings lead to the inescapable conclusion that communication between 5-HT-containing EC cells and vagal afferent nerve endings in the mucosa of the mouse small intestinal occurs in a paracrine fashion, via diffusion. 

New and Noteworthy: None of the findings here are consistent with a view that close physical contacts occur between 5-HT-containing EC cells and vagal afferent nerve endings in mouse small intestine. Rather, the findings suggest that gut–brain communication between EC cells and vagal afferent endings occurs via passive diffusion. The morphological data presented do not support the view that EC cells are physically close enough to vagal afferent endings to communicate via fast synaptic transmission.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere25613
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Volume532
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024

Keywords

  • anterograde tracing
  • enterochromaffin cell
  • gut–brain axis
  • serotonin
  • vagal afferent

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