The esophagus is a muscular conduit connecting the pharynx and the stomach. Its function is controlled by an intrinsic nervous system and by input from the central nervous system through the vagus nerve. Peristalsis in its striated muscle is directed by sequential vagal excitation arising in the brain stem, whereas peristalsis in its smooth muscle involves complex interactions among the central and peripheral neural systems and the smooth muscle elements of the esophagus. The peripheral neuronal elements responsible for producing esophageal off-response, relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, and hyperpolarization of the circular esophageal muscle cells reside in the myenteric plexus of the esophagus. For many years these nerves were considered nonadrenergic and noncholinergic because the inhibitory neurotransmitter released on their activation was unknown. We now know that nitric oxide or a related compound is that inhibitory neurotransmitter. The primary excitatory neurotransmitter controlling esophageal motor function is acetylcholine. Some disorders of esophageal motor function, including diffuse esophageal spasm and achalasia, may result from defects in or an imbalance between these excitatory and inhibitory neuromuscular systems.
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