The bowel and beyond: the enteric nervous system in neurological disorders
The enteric nervous system (ENS) is large, complex and uniquely able to orchestrate gastrointestinal behaviour independently of the central nervous system (CNS). An intact ENS is essential for life and ENS dysfunction is often linked to digestive disorders. The part the ENS plays in neurological disorders, as a portal or participant, has also become increasingly evident. ENS structure and neurochemistry resemble that of the CNS, therefore pathogenic mechanisms that give rise to CNS disorders might also lead to ENS dysfunction, and nerves that interconnect the ENS and CNS can be conduits for disease spread. We review evidence for ENS dysfunction in the aetiopathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease. Animal models suggest that common pathophysiological mechanisms account for the frequency of gastrointestinal comorbidity in these conditions. Moreover, the neurotropic pathogen, varicella zoster virus (VZV), unexpectedly establishes latency in enteric and other autonomic neurons that do not innervate skin. VZV reactivation in these neurons produces no rash and is therefore a clandestine cause of gastrointestinal disease, meningitis and strokes. The gut–brain alliance has raised consciousness as a contributor to health, but a gut–brain axis that contributes to disease merits equal attention.