, Volume 319, Issue 3, pp 367-382
Date: 26 Jan 2005

Development of the enteric nervous system, smooth muscle and interstitial cells of Cajal in the human gastrointestinal tract

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The generation of functional neuromuscular activity within the pre-natal gastrointestinal tract requires the coordinated development of enteric neurons and glial cells, concentric layers of smooth muscle and interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC). We investigated the genesis of these different cell types in human embryonic and fetal gut material ranging from weeks 4–14. Neural crest cells (NCC), labelled with antibodies against the neurotrophin receptor p75NTR, entered the foregut at week 4, and migrated rostrocaudally to reach the terminal hindgut by week 7. Initially, these cells were loosely distributed throughout the gut mesenchyme but later coalesced to form ganglia along a rostrocaudal gradient of maturation; the myenteric plexus developed primarily in the foregut, then in the midgut, and finally in the hindgut. The submucosal plexus formed approximately 2–3 weeks after the myenteric plexus, arising from cells that migrated centripetally through the circular muscle layer from the myenteric region. Smooth muscle differentiation, as evidenced by the expression of α-smooth muscle actin, followed NCC colonization of the gut within a few weeks. Gut smooth muscle also matured in a rostrocaudal direction, with a large band of α-smooth muscle actin being present in the oesophagus at week 8 and in the hindgut by week 11. Circular muscle developed prior to longitudinal muscle in the intestine and colon. ICC emerged from the developing gut mesenchyme at week 9 to surround and closely appose the myenteric ganglia by week 11. By week 14, the intestine was invested with neural cells, longitudinal, circular and muscularis mucosae muscle layers, and an ICC network, giving the fetal gut a mature appearance.

A.S.W. is funded by a PhD studentship awarded to A.J.B. by the Child Health Research Appeal Trust.