1. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is present in the wall of the gastrointestinal tract and contains all the functional classes of neuron required for complete reflex arcs. One of the most important and intriguing classes of neuron is that responsive to sensory stimuli: sensory neurons with cell bodies intrinsic to the ENS.
2. These neurons have three outstanding and interrelated features: (i) reciprocal connections with each other; (ii) a slow excitatory post-synaptic potential (EPSP) resulting from high-speed firing in other sensory neurons; and (iii) a large after-hyperpolarizing potential (AHP) at the soma. Slow EPSP depolarize the cell body, generate action potentials (APs) and reduce the AHP. Conversely, the AHP limits the firing rate and, hence, reduces transmission of slow EPSP.
3. Processing of sensory information starts at the input terminals as different patterns of APs depending on the sensory modality and recent sensory history. At the soma, the ability to fire APs and, hence, drive outputs is also strongly determined by the recent firing history of the neuron (through the AHP) and network activity (through the slow EPSP). Positive feedback within the population of intrinsic sensory neurons means that the network is able to drive outputs well beyond the duration of the stimuli that triggered them.
4. Thus, sensory input and subsequent reflex generation are integrated over several hierarchical levels within the network on intrinsic sensory neurons.