II. The intestine as a sensory organ: neural, endocrine, and immune responses
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The lining of the gastrointestinal tract is the largest vulnerable surface that faces the external environment. Just as the other large external surface, the skin, is regarded as a sensory organ, so should the intestinal mucosa. In fact, the mucosa has three types of detectors: neurons, endocrine cells, and immune cells. The mucosa is in immediate contact with the intestinal contents so that nutrients can be efficiently absorbed, and, at the same time, it protects against the intrusion of harmful entities, such as toxins and bacteria, that may enter the digestive system with food. Signals are sent locally to control motility, secretion, tissue defense, and vascular perfusion; to other digestive organs, for example, to the stomach, gallbladder, and pancreas; and to the central nervous system, for example to influence feeding behavior. The three detecting systems in the intestine are more extensive than those of any other organ: the enteric nervous system contains on the order of 10(8) neurons, the gastroenteropancreatic endocrine system uses more than 20 identified hormones, and the gut immune system has 70- 80% of the body's immune cells. The gastrointestinal tract has an integrated response to changes in its luminal contents. When this response is maladjusted or is overwhelmed, the consequences can be severe, as in cholera intoxication, or debilitating, as in irritable bowel syndrome. Thus it is essential to obtain a full understanding of the sensory functions of the intestine, of how the body reacts to the information, and of how neural, hormonal, and immune signals interact.
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