The central nervous system interacts dynamically with the immune system to modulate inflammation through humoral and neural pathways. Recently, in animal models of sepsis, the vagus nerve (VN) has been proposed to play a crucial role in the regulation of the immune response, also referred to as the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. The VN, through release of acetylcholine, dampens immune cell activation by interacting with α-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Recent evidence suggests that the vagal innervation of the gastrointestinal tract also plays a major role controlling intestinal immune activation. Indeed, VN electrical stimulation potently reduces intestinal inflammation restoring intestinal homeostasis, whereas vagotomy has the reverse effect.
In this review, we will discuss the current understanding concerning the mechanisms and effects involved in the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway in the gastrointestinal tract. Deeper investigation on this counter-regulatory neuroimmune mechanism will provide new insights in the cross-talk between the nervous and immune system leading to the identification of new therapeutic targets to treat intestinal immune disease.