Ineffective esophageal motility and the vagus: current challenges and future prospects
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Ineffective esophageal motility (IEM) is characterized by low to very low amplitude propulsive contractions in the distal esophagus, hence primarily affecting the smooth muscle part of the esophagus. IEM is often found in patients with dysphagia or heartburn and is commonly associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease. IEM is assumed to be associated with ineffective bolus transport; however, this can be verified using impedance measurements or evaluation of a barium coated marshmallow swallow. Furthermore, water swallows may not assess accurately the motor capabilities of the esophagus, since contraction amplitude is strongly determined by the size and consistency of the bolus. The "peristaltic reserve" of the esophagus can be evaluated by multiple rapid swallows that, after a period of diglutative inhibition, normally give a powerful peristaltic contraction suggestive of the integrity of neural orchestration and smooth muscle action. The amplitude of contraction is determined by a balance between intrinsic excitatory cholinergic, inhibitory nitrergic, as well as postinhibition rebound excitatory output to the musculature. This is strongly influenced by vagal efferent motor neurons and this in turn is influenced by vagal afferent neurons that send bolus information to the solitary nucleus where programmed activation of the vagal motor neurons to the smooth muscle esophagus is initiated. Solitary nucleus activity is influenced by sensory activity from a large number of organs and various areas of the brain, including the hypothalamus and the cerebral cortex. This allows interaction between swallowing activities and respiratory and cardiac activities and allows the influence of acute and chronic emotional states on swallowing behavior. Interstitial cells of Cajal are part of the sensory units of vagal afferents, the intramuscular arrays, and they provide pacemaker activity to the musculature that can generate peristalsis in the absence of innervation. This indicates that a low-amplitude esophageal contraction, observed as IEM, can be caused by a multitude of factors, and therefore many pathways can be potentially explored to restore normal esophageal peristalsis.
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