Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the Brain

Women with irritable bowel syndrome experience both increases and decreases of brain grey matter in specific cortical brain regions.

A large study by researchers at McGill University in Canada and UCLA has determined that female patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experience structural changes in their brains, a finding that puts IBS in the category of other pain disorders like lower back pain and migraines.

Study author Dr. Emeran Mayer, professor of medicine, physiology and psychiatry, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, and colleagues used imaging techniques to examine anatomical brain differences in women with moderate IBS; disease duration from 1-34 years, averaging 11 years. The researchers observed “both increases and decreases of brain grey matter in specific cortical brain regions.” Even after accounting for factors like anxiety and depression, the researchers still observed differences “between IBS patients and control subjects in areas of the brain involved in cognitive and evaluative functions, including the prefrontal and posterior parietal cortices, and in the posterior insula, which represents the primary viscerosensory cortex receiving sensory information from the gastrointestinal tract.”

According to study author David A. Seminowicz, PhD, Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, McGill University, “the grey-matter changes in the posterior insula are particularly interesting since they may play a role in central pain amplification for IBS patients. This particular finding may point to a specific brain difference or abnormality that plays a role in heightening pain signals that reach the brain from the gut."

To read more about the study results, please click here, and, to read the Gastroenterology article on the study, please click here.

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