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The Enteric Nervous System

Our working group has been dealing with the embryonic and early childhood development of the enteric nervous system (ENS) for over 20 years. Using human tissue as well as animal models, we gain insight into what causes ENS diseases with the aim of developing new therapy options.

The ENS shows large differences both in terms of structure and in its response to substances that affect the growth and development of nerve cells, depending on the organism’s developmental stage. There are also great differences in the function of the nerve structures. Substances that affect the cells of the ENS in their development and their differentiation include growth factors (GDNF, CNTF, BDNF, FGF-2) and inflammatory messengers (interleukins).

The Complexity of an Autonomous Nervous System

The gastrointestinal tract has its own complex (autonomous) nervous system: the so-called enteric nervous system (ENS). This coordinates and controls essential functions of the gastrointestinal tract, such as motility, secretion and absorption. The ENS is therefore of great importance for the healthy functioning of the gastrointestinal tract.

Cases of malfunction or developmental disorders can lead to many diseases, including secondary immunological diseases, since the ENS is a gateway for antigens.


One of the key findings is that the ENS functions largely independently from the central nervous system. Due to its extraordinarily high number of neurons, their different cell architecture, their arrangement in complex networks and the wide range of carrier substances, the ENS is known as the “brain-within-the-gut”.

Failure during the ENS embryonic development

During embryonic development, precursor cells migrate from the neural crest into the intestine and differentiate into so-called glial and nerve cells, which form the ENS in their complex network. Any perturbances during the ENS formation, will result in serious disorders of the intestinal innervation and clinical diseases such as the megacolon congenitum (Hirschsprung's disease).

Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) is an acutely life-threatening malformation for the newborn child. The disease is caused by an abnormal development of the diaphragm in the fetal period, which leads to defects ranging from a thinned area in the diaphragm to its complete absence. An absent or only partially formed diaphragm results in an abnormal opening (hernia) that allows the stomach and intestines to move into the chest cavity and crowd the heart and lungs. This crowding can lead to underdevelopment of the lungs (pulmonary hypoplasia), potentially resulting in life-threatening breathing difficulties that can beapparent immediately after birth. However, if the diagnosis of CDH can be made prenatally treatment options are good and most patients reach a high quality of life. In order to secure the best outcome, women who receive the diagnosis of a CDH in their unborn child, should always be referred to a highly specialized center.


Contact Person

Doctoral Thesis

For Inquiries about doctoral thesis, please contact:

Lucas Wessel

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Lucas M. Wessel

Director of the Pediatric Surgery Clinic, UMM

Research projects

For Inquiries about lab stays, master studies and research projects, please contact:

Dr. Rasul Khasanov

Resident in Pediatric Surgery
Research Fellow

Dr. María Ángeles Tapia-Laliena

Senior Scientist
Project Leader