New research identifies the cause of IBS pain as ‘gut itch’

Oct 16, 2019

New research has identified the cause of IBS pain as ‘gut itch’. 11 percent of the world’s population experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but the fight against chronic pain has taken a step forward with scientists identifying receptors in the nervous system which cause the condition in the hope of developing effective treatments.

Flinders University researchers at SAHMRI have discovered receptors that cause itchy skin also exist in the human gut and activate neurons, which result in IBS patients feeling like they’re experiencing chronic gut pain or a seriously painful ‘gut itch’.

In millions of Australians with IBS, it looks like these ‘itch’ receptors might be more present than in healthy people. This means that more neurons are activated, causing the feeling of more pain.

NHMRC and Matthew Flinders Research Fellow in Gastrointestinal Neuroscience, Professor Stuart Brierley, says these gut itch receptors could offer a new way of targeting the underlying cause of gut pain, rather than using traditional drugs (like opioids), which don’t fix the problem right now.

“We found receptors which bring about an itchy feeling on skin also do the same in the gut, so these patients are essentially suffering from a ‘gut itch’. We’ve translated these results to human tissue tests and now hope to help create a treatment where people can take an oral medication for IBS.”

Professor Brierley, also the Director of the Visceral Pain Research Group at SAHMRI, says pain experienced by IBS sufferers takes place when itch receptors are coupled with what’s known as the ‘wasabi receptor’ in the nervous system, which normally helps people react to consuming wasabi – the Japanese condiment.

“Having shown these mechanisms contribute to chronic gut pain, we can now work out ways to block these receptors and thereby stop the ‘gut itch’ signal travelling from the gut to the brain. This will be a far better solution that the problems currently presented by opioid treatments.”

For information about IBS in IBD, take a look at our webinar: IBS in IBD: mechanisms, diagnosis and treatments – webinar