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Gastrointestinal perception: pathophysiological implications


Address for correspondence Fernando Azpiroz, MD, Digestive System Research Unit, Hospital General Vall d'Hebron, Autonomous University of Barcelona, 08035 Barcelona, Spain.Tel.: + 34 93 274 62 59; fax: + 34 93 489 44 56; e-mail:


Abstract Physiological gut stimuli during the digestive process are not normally perceived. However, gut stimuli activate a variety of afferent pathways and in some circumstances may induce conscious sensations. Experimental evidence gathered during the past decade suggests that patients with functional gut disorders and unexplained abdominal symptoms may have a sensory dysfunction of the gut, so that physiological stimuli would induce symptoms. Assessment of visceral sensitivity is still poorly developed, but in analogy to somatosensory testing, differential stimulation of visceral afferents may be achieved by a combination of stimulation techniques, which may help to characterize sensory dysfunctions. Visceral afferent input is modulated by a series of mechanisms at different levels of the brain gut axis, and conceivably, a dysfunction of these regulatory mechanisms could cause hyperalgesia. The sensory dysfunction in functional patients seems associated to altered reflex activity, and both mechanisms may interact to produce the symptoms. Evidence of a gut sensory–reflex dysfunction as a common pathophysiological mechanism in different functional gastrointestinal disorders, would suggest that they are different forms of the same process, and that the clinical manifestations depend on the specific pathways affected.