The interstitial cells of Cajal associated with the myenteric plexus (ICC-MP) are a network of coupled oscillators in the small intestine that generate rhythmic electrical phase waves leading to corresponding waves of contraction, yet rhythmic action potentials and intercellular calcium waves have been recorded from c-kit-mutant mice that lack the ICC-MP, suggesting that there may be a second pacemaker network. The gap junction blocker carbenoxolone induced a “pinstripe” motor pattern consisting of rhythmic “stripes” of contraction that appeared simultaneously across the intestine with a period of ~4 s. The infinite velocity of these stripes suggested they were generated by a coupled oscillator network, which we call X. In c-kit mutants rhythmic contraction waves with the period of X traveled the length of the intestine, before the induction of the pinstripe pattern by carbenoxolone. Thus X is not the ICC-MP and appears to operate under physiological conditions, a fact that could explain the viability of these mice. Individual stripes consisted of a complex pattern of bands of contraction and distension, and between stripes there could be slide waves and v waves of contraction. We hypothesized that these phenomena result from an interaction between X and the circular muscle that acts as a damped oscillator. A mathematical model of two chains of coupled Fitzhugh–Nagumo systems, representing X and circular muscle, supported this hypothesis. The presence of a second coupled oscillator network in the small intestine underlines the complexity of motor pattern generation in the gut.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY Physiological experiments and a mathematical model indicate a coupled oscillator network in the small intestine in addition to the c-kit-expressing myenteric interstitial cells of Cajal. This network interacts with the circular muscle, which itself acts as a system of damped oscillators, to generate physiological contraction waves in c-kit (W) mutant mice.