Survival dependency of intramuscular ICC on vagal afferent nerves in the cat esophagus
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Interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) have been proposed as stretch receptors for vagal afferent nerves in the stomach based on immunohistochemical studies. The aim of the present study was to use electron microscopy and the anterograde degeneration technique to investigate ultrastructural features and survival dependency of ICC associated with vagal afferent innervation of the cat esophagus. This is the first report on the ultrastructural characteristics of ICC in the cat esophagus. Intramuscular ICC (ICC-IM) were identified throughout the musculature, whereas ICC in the myenteric plexus were rare. ICC-IM were particularly numerous in septa aligned with smooth muscle bundles. They were in synapse-like contact with nerve varicosities and in gap junction contact with smooth muscle cells. Smooth muscle cells also made contact with ICC through peg and socket junctions. Precision damage through small-volume injection of saline in the center of the nodose ganglion from the lateral side, known to selectively affect sensory nerves, was followed within 24 h by degeneration of a subset of nerve varicosities associated with ICC-IM, as well as degeneration of the associated ICC-IM. Smooth muscle cells were not affected. Nerves of Auerbachs plexus and associated ICC were not affected. In summary, ICC-IM aligning the esophageal muscle bundles form specialized synapse-like contacts with vagal afferent nerves as well as gap junction and peg-and-socket contacts with smooth muscle cells. This is consistent with a role of ICC-IM as stretch receptors associated with vagal afferent nerves; the ICC-vagal nerve interaction appears essential for the survival of the ICC.
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