Advances in ontogeny of the enteric nervous system


Alan J. Burns, Neural Development Unit, UCL Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London, WC1N 1EH UK.
Tel.: +44 20 7905 2235; fax: +44 20 7831 4366;


Abstract  The neurons and glia that comprise the enteric nervous system (ENS), the intrinsic innervation of the gastrointestinal tract, are derived from vagal and sacral regions of the neural crest. In order to form the ENS, neural crest-derived precursors undergo a number of processes including survival, migration and proliferation, prior to differentiation into neuronal subtypes, some of which form functional connections with the gut smooth muscle. Investigation of the developmental processes that underlie ENS formation has progressed dramatically in recent years, in no small part due to the attention of scientists from a range of disciplines on the genesis of Hirschsprung's disease (aganglionic megacolon), the major congenital abnormality of the ENS. This review summarizes recent advances in the field of early ENS ontogeny and focuses on: (i) the spatiotemporal migratory pathways followed by vagal and sacral neural crest-derived ENS precursors, including recent in vivo imaging of migrating crest cells within the gut, (ii) the roles of the RET and EDNRB signalling pathways and how these pathways interact to control ENS development, and (iii) how perpendicular migrations of neural crest cells within the gut lead to the formation of the myenteric and submucosal plexi located between the smooth muscle layers of the gut wall.