The enteric nervous system is one of the three divisions of the autonomic nervous system, the others being the sympathetic and parasympathetic. In contrast to the other divisions, it can perform many functions independently of the central nervous system. It consists of ganglionated plexuses, their connections with each other, and nerve fibres which arise from the plexuses and supply the muscle, blood vessels and mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract. The enteric nervous system contains a large number of neurons, approximately 107 to 108. About ten or more distinct types of enteric neurons have been distinguished on electrical, pharmacological, histochemical, biochemical and ultrastructural grounds as well as on the basis of their modes of action. Both excitatory and inhibitory nerves supply the muscle and there are inhibitory and excitatory interneurons within the enteric plexuses. There are also enteric nerves which supply intestinal glands and blood vessels, but these receive less emphasis in this commentary. Correlations between groups of neurons defined on different criteria are poor and in many cases the physiological roles of the nerves are not known. The functions of noradrenergic nerves which are of extrinsic origin are reasonably well understood, but cholinergic nerves in the intestine are the only intrinsic nerves for which both the transmitter and to some extent the functions are known. In the case of non-cholinergic, non-noradrenergic enteric inhibitory nerves, the functions are understood but the transmitter is yet to be determined, both adenosine 5′-triphosphate and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide having been proposed. Other nerves have been defined pharmacologically (non-cholinergic excitatory nerves to neurons and muscle, intrinsic inhibitory inputs to neurons, and enteric, non-cholinergic vasodilator nerves) and histochemically (intrinsic amine-handling neurons and separate neurons containing peptides: substance P, somatostatin, enkephalins, vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, gastrin cholecystokinin tetrapeptide, bombesin, neurotensin and probably other peptides). Little is known of the functions of these nerves, although a number of proposals which have been made are discussed.