Spinal Afferent Innervation of the Colon and Rectum

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Despite their seemingly elementary roles, the colon and rectum undertake a variety of key processes to ensure our overall wellbeing. Such processes are coordinated by the transmission of sensory signals from the periphery to the central nervous system, allowing communication from the gut to the brain via the “gut-brain axis”. These signals are transmitted from the peripheral terminals of extrinsic sensory nerve fibers, located within the wall of the colon or rectum, and via their axons within the spinal splanchnic and pelvic nerves to the spinal cord. Recent studies utilizing electrophysiological, anatomical and gene expression techniques indicate a surprisingly diverse set of distinct afferent subclasses, which innervate all layers of the colon and rectum. Combined these afferent sub-types allow the detection of luminal contents, low- and high-intensity stretch or contraction, in addition to the detection of inflammatory, immune, and microbial mediators. To add further complexity, the proportions of these afferents vary within splanchnic and pelvic pathways, whilst the density of the splanchnic and pelvic innervation also varies along the colon and rectum. In this review we traverse this complicated landscape to elucidate afferent function, structure, and nomenclature to provide insights into how the extrinsic sensory afferent innervation of the colon and rectum gives rise to physiological defecatory reflexes and sensations of discomfort, bloating, urgency, and pain.

Original languageEnglish
Article number467
JournalFrontiers in Cellular Neuroscience
Issue number2018
Early online date2018
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2018


  • Colon
  • Dorsal root ganglia
  • Mouse
  • Peripheral nervous system
  • Rectum
  • Sensory nerve
  • Sensory transduction
  • Spinal afferent


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