A large body of research has been dedicated to the effects of gastrointestinal peptides on vagal afferent fibres, yet multiple lines of evidence indicate that gastrointestinal peptides also modulate brainstem vagal neurocircuitry, and that this modulation has a fundamental role in the physiology and pathophysiology of the upper gastrointestinal tract. In fact, brainstem vagovagal neurocircuits comprise highly plastic neurons and synapses connecting afferent vagal fibres, second order neurons of the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS), and efferent fibres originating in the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMV). Neuronal communication between the NTS and DMV is regulated by the presence of a variety of inputs, both from within the brainstem itself as well as from higher centres, which utilize an array of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. Because of the circumventricular nature of these brainstem areas, circulating hormones can also modulate the vagal output to the upper gastrointestinal tract. This Review summarizes the organization and function of vagovagal reflex control of the upper gastrointestinal tract, presents data on the plasticity within these neurocircuits after stress, and discusses the gastrointestinal dysfunctions observed in Parkinson disease as examples of physiological adjustment and maladaptation of these reflexes.
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