Irritable Bowel Syndrome From Structural Brain Changes
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects women twice as often as men. It is commonly seen in a general medicine practice. It is thought to be chronic and involves cramping, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea and constipation. An old term for it is "spastic colon". It is one of those frustrating conditions where we "don't know what causes it" and that means doctors often say it is caused by stress or hormones or food intolerance or the immune system. Because it can be associated with depression and because it comes and goes, a variety of different medications are used to treat the symptoms.
Well, surprise! New findings reported in Gastroenterology, show that there may be structural changes in the brain that cause the gut to react and cause IBS. The researchers at UCLA and Canada's McGill University used brain scans to compare brain anatomy of 55 women with moderate IBS vs. women with no symptoms. They found thinning grey matter in specific areas of the brain. Three areas of the brain were involved in affected women, areas associated with pain inhibition, emotion regulation, attention and processing of information on organ functioning. They found changes in the brain that have a role in intensifying pain and reductions in areas which have a role in suppressing pain.
In IBS, the brain may be amplifying pain signals it receives from the bowel. We know that different patients have different thresholds for pain and this study demonstrates anatomical brain changes that might account for it.
Finding an organic component to IBS helps validate what patients have been experiencing and may lead to new treatments for the disorder.