Neural and Endocrine Regulation of the Digestive System

The activities of different regions of the GI tract are coordinated by the actions of the vagus nerve and by various hormones. The stomach begins to increase its secretion in anticipation of a meal, and further increases its activities in response to the arrival of food. The entry of chyme into the duodenum stimulates the secretion of hormones that promote contractions of the gallbladder, the secretion of pancreatic juice, and the inhibition of gastric activity.

Neural and endocrine control mechanisms modify the activity of the digestive system. The sight, smell, or taste of food, for example, can stimulate salivary and gastric secretions via activation of the vagus nerve, which helps to "prime" the digestive system in preparation for a meal. Stimulation of the vagus, in this case, originates in the brain and is a conditioned reflex (as Pavlov demonstrated by training dogs to salivate in response to a bell). The vagus nerve is also involved in the reflex control of one part of the digestive system by another—these are "short reflexes," which do not involve the brain.

The GI tract is both an endocrine gland and a target for the action of various hormones. Indeed, the first hormones to be discovered were gastrointestinal hormones. In 1902 two English physiologists, Sir William Bayliss and Ernest Starling, discovered that the duodenum produced a chemical regulator. They named this substance secretin and proposed, in 1905, that it was but one of many yet undiscovered chemical regulators produced by the body. Bayliss and Starling coined the term hormones for this new class of regulators. In that same year, other investigators discovered that an extract from the stomach antrum stimulated gastric secretion. The hormone gastrin was thus the second hormone to be discovered.

The chemical structures of gastrin, secretin, and the duodenal hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) were determined in the 1960s. More recently, a fourth hormone produced by the small intestine, gastric inhibitory peptide (GIP), has been added to the list of proven GI tract hormones. The effects of these and other gastrointestinal hormones are summarized in table 18.5.

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