The nature of catecholamine-containing neurons in the enteric nervous system in relationship with organogenesis, normal human anatomy and neurodegeneration

G. Natale, L. Ryskalin, C. L. Busceti, F. Biagioni, Francesco Fornai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The gastrointestinal tract is provided with extrinsic and intrinsic innervation. The extrinsic innervation includes the classic vagal parasympathetic and sympathetic components, with afferent sensitive and efferent secretomotor fibers. The intrinsic innervations is represented by the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is recognized as a complex neural network controlling a variety of cell populations, including smooth muscle cells, mucosal secretory cells, endocrine cells, microvasculature, immune and inflammatory cells. This is finalized to regulate gastrointestinal secretion, absorption and motility. In particular, this network is organized in several plexuses each one providing quite autonomous control of gastrointestinal functions (hence the definition of "second brain"). The similarity between ENS and CNS is further substantiated by the presence of local sensitive pseudounipolar ganglionic neurons with both peripheral and central branching which terminate in the enteric wall. A large variety of neurons and neurotransmitters takes part in the ENS. However, the nature of these neurons and their role in the regulation of gastrointestinal functions is debatable. In particular, the available literature reporting the specific nature of catecholaminecontaining neurons provides conflicting evidence. This is critical both for understanding the specific role of each catecholamine in the gut and, mostly, to characterize specifically the enteric neuropathology occurring in a variety of diseases. An emphasis is posed on neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, which is associated with the loss of catecholamine neurons. In this respect, the recognition of the nature of such neurons within the ENS would contribute to elucidate the pathological mechanisms which produce both CNS and ENS degeneration and to achieve more effective therapeutic approaches. Despite a great emphasis is posed on the role of noradrenaline to regulate enteric activities only a few reports are available on the anatomy and physiology of enteric dopamine neurons. Remarkably, this review limits the presence of enteric noradrenaline (and adrenaline) only within extrinsic sympathetic nerve terminals. This is based on careful morphological studies showing that the only catecholamine-containing neurons within ENS would be dopaminergic. This means that enteric pathology of catecholamine neurons should be conceived as axon pathology for noradrenaline neurons and whole cell pathology for dopamine neurons which would be the sole catecholamine cell within intrinsic circuitries affecting gut motility and secretions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-130
Number of pages13
JournalArchives Italiennes de Biologie
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Catecholaminergic neurons
  • Enteric nervous system
  • Gut development
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Parasympathetic nervous system
  • Sympathetic nervous system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Cell Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'The nature of catecholamine-containing neurons in the enteric nervous system in relationship with organogenesis, normal human anatomy and neurodegeneration'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this