Assessment of afferent gut--brain function using cerebral evoked responses to esophageal stimulation.
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Increasing awareness is attributed to altered sensory perception in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal disorders. Evoked potentials (EP), which represent the brain's electrical response to peripheral stimulation, have recently been used to investigate where and how (GI) afferent information is processed along the brain-gut axis. EP can be obtained with electrical stimulation or balloon distention in the esophagus in humans. Stimulation of afferent neural pathways in the esophagus produces cerebral evoked responses allowing assessment of the peripheral afferent neural pathways involved, and of the function of integrative neural centers within the brain. Recent studies using esophageal EP indicate that the cerebral response to either mode of stimulation depends on the perception of the stimuli. Using electrical stimulation, a clear dose-response relationship is found. The EP response obtained with electrical stimulation is in keeping with those recorded using direct cervical stimulation of the vagus nerve, supporting evidence that esophageal EP are produced by activation of afferent vagal pathways. From the conduction velocity of the autonomic (vagal) nerves conveying information from esophagus to brain, it was concluded that non-painful electrical stimuli predominantly activate fast conducting myelinated afferent sensory fibers (A-fibers), while EP to balloon distention are largely due to activation of unmyelinated C-fibers. Techniques, however, vary widely amongst different investigators, and some electrophysiological parameters remain controversial, as there is no standard approach. Using balloon distention, EP waveforms vary widely between laboratories, suggesting that EP are substantially influenced by the stimulator devices (pump, respirator). EP to balloon distention are hampered by a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), which is probably due to long inflation-deflation time (> 200 ms). With electrical stimulation, there is much less variability between different groups, and SNR is distinctly higher. This method appears to be most attractive for studies of afferent esophageal function. Standardization of the techniques is important, before esophageal EP can be regarded as a useful diagnostic approach in patient groups.
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