Understanding bowel disease

Research has shed light on how inflammatory bowel disease develops and how it might be better treated.

Neuroscientist Dr Kulmira Nurgali has proven the disease not only damages the gut lining, as previously known, but also kills one in five neurons inside the gut wall and permanently alters function in many remaining neurons.

"Neurons become hyperactive and hypersensitive following inflammation, meaning they don't function how they used to," Dr Nurgali said. "This begins a negative cycle as the dysfunctional neurons lead to more inflammation and in turn more neuron damage."

Neurons are nerve cells that process and transmit information by electrical and chemical signaling. The network of neurons and nerves in the intestinal wall, known as the enteric nervous system, controls all gut function from the movement of food through the system to secretion of enzymes and digestion.

As Dr Nurgali demonstrated, it is disruption of these neurons that leads to bloating, diarrhoea and constipation in those suffering inflammatory bowel disease.

The disease, often in the form of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, affects more than 60,000 Australians and costs the economy nearly $3 billion a year. 

Dr Nurgali said defining exactly how a disease worked was crucial in knowing where to intervene with better treatment.

"There is currently no effective cure, while treatment involves surgical removal of the damaged part of the intestine and suppression of symptoms," she said. "Our research has already indicated drugs protecting enteric nervous system neurons from damage during inflammation would help prevent or slow the disease."

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