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IBS is a gastrointestinal disease with symptoms ranging from abdominal pain to constipation and diarrhoea. It can often cause poor quality of life.

Researchers have discovered new links between IBS and mental health

The discovery sheds new light on the connection between the brain and our gut.

We have all experienced the workings of the so called 'gut-brain axis', where, for instance, stress impacts our intestines. But still, much remains unknown about the link between our brain and our gut. 

Research has identified genetic correlations between patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder.

Researcher Markos Tesfaye at the Department of Clinical Science at the University of Bergen and University of Oslo, and his colleagues working under the leadership of Professor Ole Andreassen, have revealed thousands of shared genetic variants between different psychiatric patients and IBS-patients.

The gut-brain axis

This sheds new light on the gut-brain axis, and is a new step towards finding effective treatments for IBS.

IBS is a gastrointestinal disease affecting approximately 10 per cent of the global population. The symptoms range from abdominal pain to constipation and diarrhoea. It can often cause poor quality of life.

IBS shares a group of genes with schizophrenia, bipolar disease, depression, and anxiety.

“It’s also considered psychosomatic, as the doctors do not find evidence of pathology upon examination of the intestines,” Tesfaye explains.

In other words, the symptoms of IBS might have a significant mental or emotional component, even though they manifest physically.

70 unique genomic loci

By using data from over 50,000 patients with IBS and hundreds of thousands of controls, as well as new statistical methods, the researchers managed to identify 116 new genomic risk loci for IBS.

Genomic loci are specific locations within the DNA sequence often comprising a group of variants.

Furthermore, the researchers identified 70 unique loci that are shared between IBS and a range of psychiatric disorders: 

  • 7 with generalised anxiety disorder
  • 35 with major depression
  • 27 with bipolar disorder
  • 15 with schizophrenia

How the gut and brain are intertwined

Interestingly, the research team discovered that many of the loci related to IBS are also involved in regulating the nervous system. 

“This expands our understanding of the genetics of IBS and where IBS lies in relation to gastroenterological and psychiatric diseases,” Tesfaye says. 

He hopes that their findings can initiate experimental research, which in turn could make it possible to develop treatments for IBS.

This study does not consider whether or how intestinal problems might lead to mental health disorders. 

“Some researchers have reported that inflammation in the intestine may lead to disruption of the intestinal barrier and leakage of bacterial products into the circulation , which in turn may reduce the permeability of the blood-brain barrier and thus the brain may be affected, ” Tesfaye points out.

About the study

New statistical methods, developed at NORMENT Centre, were used.


Tesfaye et al. Shared genetic architecture between irritable bowel syndrome and psychiatric disorders reveals molecular pathways of the gut-brain axis, Genome Medicine, vol. 15, 2023. DOI: 10.1186/s13073-023-01212-4

Tseng et al. A meta-analysis and systematic review of the comorbidity between irritable bowel syndrome and bipolar disorder, Medicine (Baltimore), 2016. DOI:  10.1097/MD.0000000000004617

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