Generation of Spontaneous Tone by Gastrointestinal Sphincters

  • Kathleen KeefEmail author
  • Caroline Cobine
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 1124)


An important feature of the gastrointestinal (GI) muscularis externa is its ability to generate phasic contractile activity. However, in some GI regions, a more sustained contraction, referred to as “tone,” also occurs. Sphincters are muscles oriented in an annular manner that raise intraluminal pressure, thereby reducing or blocking the movement of luminal contents from one compartment to another. Spontaneous tone generation is often a feature of these muscles. Four distinct smooth muscle sphincters are present in the GI tract: the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the pyloric sphincter (PS), the ileocecal sphincter (ICS), and the internal anal sphincter (IAS). This chapter examines how tone generation contributes to the functional behavior of these sphincters. Historically, tone was attributed to contractile activity arising directly from the properties of the smooth muscle cells. However, there is increasing evidence that interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) play a significant role in tone generation in GI muscles. Indeed, ICC are present in each of the sphincters listed above. In this chapter, we explore various mechanisms that may contribute to tone generation in sphincters including: (1) summation of asynchronous phasic activity, (2) partial tetanus, (3) window current, and (4) myofilament sensitization. Importantly, the first two mechanisms involve tone generation through summation of phasic events. Thus, the historical distinction between “phasic” versus “tonic” smooth muscles in the GI tract requires revision. As described in this chapter, it is clear that the unique functional role of each sphincter in the GI tract is accompanied by a unique combination of contractile mechanisms.


Gastrointestinal Tone Interstitial cells of Cajal Myofilament sensitization Electromechanical coupling Sphincter Slow wave Membrane potential Motility ANO1 



We are extremely grateful to the NIDDK for their support through Grant No. DK078736.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physiology and Cell BiologyUniversity of Nevada, Reno School of MedicineRenoUSA

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