Reprint of: Role of enteric neurotransmission in host defense and protection of the gastrointestinal tract.
Neonatal maternal separation (MS) predisposes adult rats to develop stress-induced mucosal barrier dysfunction/visceral hypersensitivity and rat pups to develop colonic epithelial dysfunction. Our aim was to examine if enhanced epithelial permeability in such pups resulted from abnormal regulation by enteric nerves. Pups were separated from the dam for 3 h/day (days 4-20); nonseparated (NS) pups served as controls. On day 20, colonic tissues were removed and mounted in Ussing chambers. Horseradish peroxidase (HRP) flux was used to measure macromolecular permeability. HRP flux was increased in MS versus NS pups. The enhanced flux was inhibited by the cholinergic muscarinic antagonist atropine and the nicotinic antagonist hexamethonium. The cholinergic component was greater in tissues from MS versus NS pups, suggesting that increased cholinergic activity was responsible for the MS elevated permeability. Western blots and immunohistochemistry of colonic tissues demonstrated increased expression of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) in MS pups, indicating greater synthesis of acetylcholine. Since a previous study indicated that corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) mediates barrier dysfunction in MS pups, we examined if the two pathways were linked. In MS tissues, nonselective CRF receptor antagonism inhibited the enhanced flux, and the addition of atropine did not produce further inhibition. Using selective receptor antagonists, we identified that CRF receptor 2 was involved in mediating this effect. These findings suggest that CRF, via CRF receptor 2, acts on cholinergic nerves to induce epithelial barrier dysfunction. Our study provides evidence that MS stimulates synthesis of acetylcholine, which, together with released CRF, creates a condition conducive to the development of epithelial barrier defects.