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Medical Science Monitor Basic Research


eISSN: 1643-3750

The brain-gut axis in irritable bowel syndrome – clinical aspects

Tomasz Mach

Med Sci Monit 2004; 10(6): RA125-131

ID: 11685

Available online:

Published: 2004-06-03

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, affecting about 20% of the world’s population. Chronic abdominal pain or discomfort relieved by defecation and associated with altered bowel habits are the mainstay in diagnosis. The pathophysiology of IBS remains unknown. This biopsychosocial disorder involves dysregulation of the nervous system, altered intestinal motility, and increased visceral sensitivity. All of these result from dysregulation of the bidirectional communication between the gut with its enteric nervous system and the brain (the brain-gut axis), modulated by various psychosocial and environmental factors (e.g. infection, inflammation). Numerous neurotransmitters are found in the brain and gut that regulate GI activities, including 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT, serotonin) and its 5-HT[sub]3[/sub] and 5-HT[sub]4[/sub] receptors. The current approach to IBS patients is based on a positive diagnosis of the symptom complex, exclusion of underlying organic disease, and institution of a therapeutic trial. Traditional symptomatic treatment has included antidiarrheals, laxatives and bulking agents/fiber, low-dose tricyclic antidepressants, antispasmodics for pain, and ‘alternative’ therapies (e.g. psychotherapy, hypnotherapy). The scientific evidence supporting this therapy is limited. Novel approaches include visceral analgesics and serotonin agonists and antagonists. In patients with severe diarrhea, 5-HT[sub]3[/sub] receptor antagonists (e.g. alosetron) and selective M[sub]3[/sub]-type anticholinergics are indicated, in constipation 5-HT,sub>4[/sub] agonists (e.g. tegaserod), and in pain alfa2-adrenergics (e.g. clonidine), cholecystokinin antagonists, kappa-opioid agonists (e.g. fedotozine), and neurokinin antagonists; some of these agents are still being investigated. Understanding the brain-gut axis is crucial in the development of effective therapies for IBS.

Keywords: Brain - physiopathology, Gastrointestinal Motility, Irritable Bowel Syndrome - drug therapy, Irritable Bowel Syndrome - epidemiology, Irritable Bowel Syndrome - physiopathology, Irritable Bowel Syndrome - psychology, Stress, Psychological - complications, Stress, Psychological - physiopathology, Brain - physiopathology, Gastrointestinal Motility, Irritable Bowel Syndrome - psychology, Stress, Psychological - physiopathology