Central nervous system control of gastrointestinal motility and secretion and modulation of gastrointestinal functions.
Although the gastrointestinal (GI) tract possesses intrinsic neural plexuses that allow a significant degree of autonomy over GI functions, the central nervous system (CNS) provides extrinsic neural inputs that regulate, modulate, and control these functions. While the intestines are capable of functioning in the absence of extrinsic inputs, the stomach and esophagus are much more dependent upon extrinsic neural inputs, particularly from parasympathetic and sympathetic pathways. The sympathetic nervous system exerts a predominantly inhibitory effect upon GI muscle and provides a tonic inhibitory influence over mucosal secretion while, at the same time, regulates GI blood flow via neurally mediated vasoconstriction. The parasympathetic nervous system, in contrast, exerts both excitatory and inhibitory control over gastric and intestinal tone and motility. Although GI functions are controlled by the autonomic nervous system and occur, by and large, independently of conscious perception, it is clear that the higher CNS centers influence homeostatic control as well as cognitive and behavioral functions. This review will describe the basic neural circuitry of extrinsic inputs to the GI tract as well as the major CNS nuclei that innervate and modulate the activity of these pathways. The role of CNS-centered reflexes in the regulation of GI functions will be discussed as will modulation of these reflexes under both physiological and pathophysiological conditions. Finally, future directions within the field will be discussed in terms of important questions that remain to be resolved and advances in technology that may help provide these answers.