The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is the part of the nervous system that governs the digestive processes. This system is also known as the intrinsic nervous system. The ENS is very complex and has a large number of neurons just like the spinal cord. Although the enteric nervous system is connected to the central nervous system, it is like a stand-alone nervous system that gives output to control the gastrointestinal tract. It performs most of its functions without depending on signals from the central nervous system. Its extensive neural circuits make it capable of carrying out local autonomous function. Because of the extent and degree of autonomy, the ENS is also referred to as the body’s second brain. The ENS, together with the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems make up the autonomic nervous system.
1. It controls movement of food in the gastrointestinal tract. The gastrointestinal tract has a muscle coat that contract and relax to facilitate the movement of food along the digestive tract. These muscles help in mixing up the food and ensuring that it is exposed to the enzymes to be broken down and the absorptive lining of the small intestine. It also controls the function of the smooth muscle sphincters which regulate the passage of food from one section of the stomach to another.
2. Regulates local blood flow and fluid exchange. The ENS controls the movement of electrolytes and water between the lining of the digestive system and the tissue fluid compartments. It does this by controlling the permeability of ions through the walls of the small and large intestine. This function is very important because it helps maintain the electrolyte and body fluid balance.
3. Regulation of pancreatic and gastric secretions. The secretion of pancreatic enzymes, hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen among other secretions is controlled by the Enteric Nervous System and the hormones. These secretions are very essential in the different stages of digestion. The ENS ensures that all the necessary secretions in a given section of the gastrointestinal tract are released.
4. The ENS is responsible for defense reactions in gastrointestinal system. The defense reactions include vomiting, diarrhea and exaggerated propulsive activity in the digestive system. These reactions help to dilute and eliminate toxins and pathogens from the digestive tract.
5. The ENS is responsible for Entero-enteric reflexes. Entero-enteric reflexes control one region of the digestive system with respect to others. For example, bile is released from the gall bladder when food enters the intestines. This helps to ensure that the digestion process flows smoothly.
6. Links the gastrointestinal tract to the central nervous system. This helps to convey information about the gastrointestinal system to the consciousness. This interaction is what makes it possible to feel pain, hunger and discomforts. Other signals such as that indicating acidity in the stomach are also transmitted to the central nervous system but never reach the consciousness. The central nervous system automatically responds by sending signals to control the gastrointestinal tract which are relayed through the Enteric Nervous system.
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