In a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, a research team reported that gastrointestinal disorders are associated with psychological dysfunctions and can be justified by a failure of communication between the brain and the bowel. According to the team, gastrointestinal disorders causing abdominal pain are associated with central sensitization and psychopathologies that are often exacerbated by stress.
Visceral pain is a symptom of many gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome, although in most cases, the cause is unknown. In the study entitled “Behavioral and molecular processing of visceral pain in the brain of mice: impact of colitis and psychological stress,” Dr. Peter Holzer and colleagues examined the impact of chronic inflammatory abdominal pain on social behavior and the brain’s functioning.
Using mice, the researchers found brain changes associating pain to emotions and memory. The research team looked at two important aspects, pain sensitivity and stress, and the study results showed that colitis increases pain sensitivity and impacts the brain, which then influences the social behavior of the affected subjects, leading, for example, to social withdrawal or anxiety disorders. “Behavioral changes caused by colitis are reflected in the limbic system and the connected regions of the cortex,” Dr. Holzer explained in a news release, also noting that chronic abdominal pain is associated with psychopathology.
Scientists have gradually tried to comprehend the interaction of diverse body systems to understand the phenomena of abdominal pain, with studies focusing on the very pain-sensitive nervous fibers present in the gastrointestinal tract. “Many interesting angles have been found and drugs developed. But in clinical tests in patients, the medication turns out to have little or no effect” said Dr. Holzer. “The lesson to be learned from this: chronic abdominal pain is not only produced by an oversensitivity of nerves in the gastro-intestinal tract, but something else has to be involved that is closer to the brain.”
Researchers are progressively becoming more knowledgeable on the amount of information that passes from the intestines to the brain in cases of abdominal pain. The present study demonstrates the importance of the neural, as well as the crucial role of the immunological and hormonal, pathways. Additionally, there is strong evidence of the latest investigations on gut microbiome. “Gut microbiota have an impact on all sorts of bodily functions, including the brain and pain sensitivity, and also the individual’s mood,” noted Dr. Holzer.
In the framework of the “MyNewGut” European Union project, scientists from the Medical University of Graz are exploring whether gut microbiota composition has an influence on brain function.
“For a comprehensive understanding of chronic pain syndromes it is important to take into account all information pathways, not only the neuronal ones, between the periphery and the brain,” concluded Dr. Holzer. The researcher is firm in his conviction that a normalization of disturbed brain functioning could lead to an effective treatment for chronic pain.