The effects of age on the overall population and on subpopulations of myenteric neurons in the rat small intestine


Correspondence to Dr T. Cowen, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, Rowland Hill Street, London NW3 2PF, UK.


Previous studies on ageing animal and human subjects have demonstrated a significant overall decline in neuronal numbers in the myenteric plexus of the enteric nervous system (ENS). Our study aimed to confirm this observation by counting myenteric neurons stained with the panneuronal markers PGP 9.5 and NADH-diaphorase. We also wished to examine the possibility that particular subpopulations of neurons are vulnerable. Therefore, we have immunostained and counted a number of nerve cell groups within the myenteric plexus of old and young Sprague Dawley rats using markers which reflect some of the neuronal phenotypes present, including ChAT and VIP. The number of neurons demonstrating NADH-diaphorase activity was significantly reduced (P<0.05) by approximately 15% in old rats. However, the number of neurons stained for PGP 9.5 immunohistochemistry was not reduced and demonstrated larger numbers of neurons than the NADH-diaphorase method. None of the other neuronal markers studied showed any significant reductions with age. In contrast to previous work, this study has gathered little evidence for extensive cell loss in the myenteric plexus of the aged rat, either in overall populations, or in any of the principal functional groups of neurons.