Background Sensory information from the viscera, including the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is transmitted through the afferent vagus via a glutamatergic synapse to neurons of the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS), which integrate this sensory information to regulate autonomic functions and homeostasis. The integrated response is conveyed to, amongst other nuclei, the preganglionic neurons of the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMV) using mainly GABA, glutamate and catecholamines as neurotransmitters. Despite being modulated by almost all the neurotransmitters tested so far, the glutamatergic synapse between NTS and DMV does not appear to be tonically active in the control of gastric motility and tone. Conversely, tonic inhibitory GABAergic neurotransmission from the NTS to the DMV appears critical in setting gastric tone and motility, yet, under basal conditions, this synapse appears resistant to modulation.
Purpose Here, we review the available evidence suggesting that vagal efferent output to the GI tract is regulated, perhaps even controlled, in an ‘on-demand’ and efficient manner in response to ever-changing homeostatic conditions. The focus of this review is on the plasticity induced by variations in the levels of second messengers in the brainstem neurons that form vago-vagal reflex circuits. Emphasis is placed upon the modulation of GABAergic transmission to DMV neurons and the modulation of afferent input from the GI tract by neurohormones/neurotransmitters and macronutrients. Derangement of this ‘on-demand’ organization of brainstem vagal circuits may be one of the factors underlying the pathophysiological changes observed in functional dyspepsia or hyperglycemic gastroparesis.