Irritable bowel syndrome associated with brain changes

Irritable bowel syndrome has been a tough disorder to understand. Studies have failed to show any structural problems in the gut that would account for the symptoms of pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. However, the disorder is real, affecting as many as 15% of Americans.

A new study has found a possible connection between IBS and the brain. Researchers at McGill University and UCLA used MRI scans to reveal changes in the brains of women with the disorder. The researchers took MRI scans of 55 IBS patients and 48 healthy women for comparison. The women with IBS tended to have different amounts of brain gray matter in certain areas; for example, decreases in gray matter in parts of the brain that govern attention and areas that suppress pain.


A link between the brain and chronic pain has been identified in other disorders, such as lower back pain, migraines, fibromyalgia and hip pain. The study on IBS suggests that, like these other conditions, the problem may be due to the brain’s inability to inhibit the pain response.

“Discovering structural changes in the brain, whether they are primary or secondary to the gastrointestinal symptoms, demonstrates an ‘organic’ component to IBS and supports the concept of a brain-gut disorder,” Emeran Mayer, a co-author of the study at UCLA, said in a news release. “Also, the findings remove the idea once and for all that IBS symptoms are not real and are ‘only psychological.’ The findings will give us more insight into better understanding IBS.”

For more information on irritable bowel syndrome, see this website from the National National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published Thursday in the journal Gastroenterology.

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