Neurodegeneration: a key factor in the ageing gut


Dr Paul R. Wade, Johnson & Johnson PRD, Enterology − R3027, Welsh & McKean Roads, PO Box 776, Spring House, PA 19477, USA.
Tel.: (215) 628 5174; fax: (215) 628 5047;


Many individuals experience gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction more frequently as they age, and the segment of the human population that is growing the most rapidly is the ‘oldest old’, who are ≥ 80 years old. There has recently been renewed interest in the age-related changes intrinsic to the gut, and these investigations may help physicians understand the ‘normal’ aged GI tract, as distinct from disordered bowel function that is the result of comorbid conditions and/or GI side effects of medications used to treat those conditions. In this concise review we summarize recent data that suggest age-related neurodegenerative changes in the enteric nervous system (ENS) are key to functional changes observed with advanced age. Morphological studies are reviewed that demonstrate clearly the loss of enteric neurones in both submucosal and myenteric plexuses in humans and in rodents. Recent studies that indicate selective preservation of nitrergic, but not cholinergic, neurones are reviewed, as are preliminary findings that intrinsic sensory neurones may be among the most ‘age-labile’ subpopulations of the ENS. Caloric restriction remains the only intervention known that prevents neurodegeneration of ageing in the ENS, and mechanisms involved in this phenomenon are discussed. The field of ageing research in enteric neurobiology is ripe for rapid progression from phenomenology of age-related losses of neurones and associated functional changes to discovery of therapeutic approaches that may help ameliorate deterioration of bowel function and thereby contribute significantly to improved quality of life in advanced age.