Background Mechanoreceptors to the internal anal sphincter (IAS) contribute to continence and normal defecation, yet relatively little is known about their function or morphology. We investigated the function and structure of mechanoreceptors to the guinea pig IAS.
Methods Extracellular recordings from rectal nerve branches to the IAS in vitro, combined with anterograde labeling of recorded nerve trunks, were used to characterize extrinsic afferent nerve endings activated by circumferential distension.
Key Results Slowly adapting, stretch-sensitive afferents were recorded in rectal nerves to the IAS. Ten of 11 were silent under basal conditions and responded to circumferential stretch in a saturating linear manner. Rectal nerve afferents responded to compression with von Frey hairs with low thresholds (0.3–0.5 mN) and 3.4 ± 0.5 discrete, elongated mechanosensitive fields of innervation aligned parallel to circular muscle bundles (length = 62 ± 16 mm, n = 10). Anterogradely labeled rectal nerve axons typically passed through sparse irregular myenteric ganglia adjacent to the IAS, before ending in extensive varicose arrays within the circular muscle and, to a lesser extent, the longitudinal muscle overlying the IAS. Few (8%) IAS myenteric ganglia contained intraganglionic laminar endings. In eight preparations, mechanotransduction sites were mapped in combination with successful anterograde fills. Mechanotransduction sites were strongly associated with extensive fine varicose arrays within the circular muscle (P < 0.05), and not with any other neural structures.
Conclusions & Inferences Mechanotransduction sites for low-threshold, slowly adapting mechanoreceptors innervating the IAS are likely to correspond to extensive fine varicose arrays within the circular muscle.