The recto-anal region is innervated by extrinsic and intrinsic nerves and a number of neuropeptides including substance P (SP) have been suggested to participate in the regulation of intestinal movements. We examined the age-related changes in the distribution of SP-immunoreactive nerve structures in the distal part of the rat large intestine. Using immunohistochemistry, the presence of SP was studied in fresh tissues from Wistar rats at different ages taken at three sampling sites, the distal rectum, anal canal and internal anal sphincter. In the 15-day old rats the myenteric plexus of the distal rectum and anal canal was well outlined by numerous SP-immunoreactive varicose nerve fibres encircling immunonegative perikarya. In the circular muscle layer, nerve fibres and small nerve bundles ran parallel to the muscle cells, while in the longitudinal muscle layer, only occasional nerve fibres were seen. At the level of the internal anal sphincter, no myenteric ganglia were present. Here, thin varicose fibers ran parallel to the smooth muscle cells. In the 3-month old rats, a larger number of intensely staining SP-immunoreactive nerve fibres were found and in the circular muscle layer, thicker nerve strands were observed. In the 26-month old rats, the density and staining intensity of SP-immunopositive nerve fibres in the myenteric plexus was lower than in the 3-month-old rats. Similar changes in the SP-immunostained fibres in the internal anal sphincter were observed. Degenerative alterations in SP-containing fibres during aging appear to play a role in ano-rectal motility and sphincter control.
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