What is the Myenteric Plexus?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The myenteric plexus is a network of nerve fibers located within the layer of muscular tissue that lines the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. It is part of the enteric nervous system, a subdivision of the peripheral nervous system that is responsible for controlling the activities of the digestive tract. This particular structure mediates the contractions of the muscular layer, key to moving food through the body so that it can be processed by the metabolism.

An intestinal biopsy removes questionable tissue in order to have it analyzed by a pathologist.
An intestinal biopsy removes questionable tissue in order to have it analyzed by a pathologist.

This structure is sometimes regarded as part of the autonomic nervous system. It does act primarily below the level of consciousness, automatically sending signals to the gastrointestinal tract on the basis of trigger events. It acts autonomously and in concert with a number of other systems to enable the digestion and metabolism of food. However, the central nervous system can also be involved with conscious control of the myenteric plexus if it becomes necessary.

The myenteric plexus is primarily responsible for intestinal motility.
The myenteric plexus is primarily responsible for intestinal motility.

Also known as Auerbach's plexus after the first anatomist to describe it, the myenteric plexus innervates the mucosal lining of the digestive tract and is primarily responsible for intestinal motility. Motility disorders, where the gastrointestinal tract does not contract and relax normally, sometimes involve damage to the nerve fibers in the myenteric plexus. Achalasia is an example of a disorder that can involve this structure.

The myenteric plexus is a network of nerve fibers located within the layer of muscular tissue that lines the esophagus, stomach, and intestines.
The myenteric plexus is a network of nerve fibers located within the layer of muscular tissue that lines the esophagus, stomach, and intestines.

Within the network of nerve fibers that makes up the myenteric plexus, there are a number of outlying clusters of nerve ganglia that control individual areas of the intestine. Although they are sometimes taken to be in isolation, they are all part of an interconnected system and everyone has just one myenteric plexus, not many individual structures. Together, the nerve fibers and ganglia provide the primary source of innervation to the intestinal tract and there are more cells in this structure than there are in the spinal cord.

The myenteric plexus is a network of nerve fibers located within the layer of muscular tissue lining the esophagus, stomach and intestines.
The myenteric plexus is a network of nerve fibers located within the layer of muscular tissue lining the esophagus, stomach and intestines.

When patients develop motility disorders that interfere with eating, digestion, and metabolism, a number of screening tests including imaging studies can be performed to learn more about the origins of the disorders and to pinpoint the location or locations in the intestinal tract where the muscular lining is not moving as it should be. These tests can include an assessment to determine if nerve fibers or ganglia in the myenteric plexus have been damaged. These cells can be seen on biopsies of the lining of the intestinal tract taken during a surgical biopsy and reviewed by a pathologist.

Issues with the myenteric plexus can make it difficult to swallow food or liquids.
Issues with the myenteric plexus can make it difficult to swallow food or liquids.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

omgnotagain

@m3g4n – As a medical student, let me tell you that gastric emptying can occur when the myenteric plexus is malfunctioning. For future readers, gastric emptying is the process of emptying the contents of the stomach into the next section of the digestive tract.

The myenteric plexus sits between the two muscle layers that line your entire digestive tract. It’s rare for the entire myenteric plexus to malfunction, so gastric emptying is often left unaffected. However, disorders that affect the nerves and muscles that contribute to gastric emptying can in fact stop the process altogether.

m3g4n

Is it possible for gastric emptying to occur when the myenteric plexus isn’t working properly? I have to write a paper on gastric disorders, and would like to focus on the effects of myenteric plexus malfunctions.

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