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After studying this chapter, you should be able to:


  • List the major forms of motility in the gastrointestinal tract and their roles in digestion and excretion.
  • Distinguish between peristalsis and segmentation.
  • Explain the electrical basis of gastrointestinal contractions and the role of basic electrical activity in governing motility patterns.
  • Describe how gastrointestinal motility changes during fasting.
  • Understand how food is swallowed and transferred to the stomach.
  • Define the factors that govern gastric emptying and the abnormal response of vomiting.
  • Define how the motility patterns of the colon subserve its function to desiccate and evacuate the stool.


The digestive and absorptive functions of the gastrointestinal system outlined in the previous chapter depend on a variety of mechanisms that soften the food, propel it through the length of the gastrointestinal tract (Table 27–1), and mix it with bile from the gallbladder and digestive enzymes secreted by the salivary glands and pancreas. Some of these mechanisms depend on intrinsic properties of the intestinal smooth muscle. Others involve the operation of reflexes involving the neurons intrinsic to the gut, reflexes involving the central nervous system (CNS), paracrine effects of chemical messengers, and gastrointestinal hormones.

Table Graphic Jump Location
Table 27–1 Mean Lengths of Various Segments of the Gastrointestinal Tract as Measured by Intubation in Living Humans.



Peristalsis is a reflex response that is initiated when the gut wall is stretched by the contents of the lumen, and it occurs in all parts of the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum. The stretch initiates a circular contraction behind the stimulus and an area of relaxation in front of it (Figure 27–1). The wave of contraction then moves in an oral-to-caudal direction, propelling the contents of the lumen forward at rates that vary from 2 to 25 cm/s. Peristaltic activity can be increased or decreased by the autonomic input to the gut, but its occurrence is independent of extrinsic innervation. Indeed, progression of the contents is not blocked by removal and resuture of a segment of intestine in its original position and is blocked only if the segment is reversed before it is sewn back into place. Peristalsis is an excellent example of the integrated activity of the enteric nervous system. It appears that local stretch releases serotonin, which activates sensory neurons that activate the myenteric plexus. Cholinergic neurons passing in a retrograde direction in this plexus activate neurons that release substance P and acetylcholine, causing smooth muscle contraction behind the bolus. At the same time, ...

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