Irritable Bowel Syndrome : Studies of central pathophysiological mechanisms and effects of treatment

Abstract: Background and aimsIrritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. The societal costs of the disorder are significant, as are its negative effects on quality of life. Medical treatment options are limited, but psychological treatments such as hypnotherapy have proven to be effective. Important pathophysiological mechanisms include disturbances in brain processing of visceral sensation and expectation of visceral sensation. Increased sensation of stimuli (hypersensitivity) is present in a subset of IBS patients to distensions in the lower part of the gastrointestinal tract, indicating a probable important pathophysiological mechanism in IBS. The overall aim of the thesis was to further study the central pathophysiological mechanisms involved in IBS. Specifically, we aimed to identify differences in brain response to standardized repeated rectal distensions and expectation of these stimuli between IBS patients (with or without perceptual rectal hypersensitivity), and healthy controls. Furthermore, we aimed to investigate IBS patients´ brain responses to standardized rectal distensions and expectation of these stimuli after either a successful course hypnotherapy or educational intervention.MethodsFunctional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were acquired and analyzed from 15 IBS patients with visceral hypersensitivity, and 18 IBS patients with normal visceral sensitivity (papers I and II). In paper III, fMRI data were analyzed from IBS patients who reported significant symptom reduction after either a course of hypnotherapy, or an educational intervention. FMRI data from IBS patients and healthy controls were also compared.ResultsThe findings reported in papers I and II suggest, that the differences in brain response between IBS patients with and without rectal hypersensitivity, can be explained by changes in brain response during the course of the experiment. Even though the brain responses were similar between groups during the early phase of the experiment, they became substantially different during the late phase. The IBS patients with rectal hypersensitivity demonstrated increased brain response in several brain regions and networks involved in visceral sensation and processing. In contrast, IBS patients with normal rectal sensitivity exhibited reduced brain response during the late phase of the experiment. As reported in paper III, similar symptom reduction was achieved for both treatments. The symptomatic improvement was associated with a reduction of response in the anterior insula, indicating an attenuated awareness of the stimuli. The hypnotherapy group had a reduction of response in the posterior insula, indicating less input to the brain, possibly due to changed activity in endogenous pain modulatory systems. In patients who reported significant symptom reduction following treatment, the brain response to rectal distension got more similar to that observed in healthy controls.ConclusionsThe results from papers I and II indicate that a subpopulation of IBS patients lacks the ability to habituate to repeated rectal distensions and expectation of these stimuli. Results from paper III indicate that the abnormal processing of visceral stimuli in IBS can be altered, and that the treatments probably had a normalizing effect on the central processing abnormality of visceral signals in IBS.