How connected is our brain to our gut? Dr. Chelsea Matisz studies the relationship between chronic gut-inflammation and mood disorders, and she’s discovering just how deep the connection goes.

Chronic gut-inflammation is a symptom of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBDs), such Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Acute (short-lived) inflammation is part of the immune system’s response to harm: it helps the body fight off infection and speed up healing. However, diseases like those above trick our immune system to attack perfectly healthy cells, causing painful chronic (ongoing) gut-inflammation. What Matisz’s research suggests is that, in addition to the physical complications, IBD also appears to affect the brain in serious ways.

In fact, her research suggests that IBDs rewire the brain’s neurons, causing severe mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. While it’s not uncommon for disease to negatively impact our emotions and behaviours, the effect chronic inflammation has on the brain is more severe. “There's this idea that mood disorders are just the psychological burden of disease,” Matisz states. “People think ‘of course you're depressed, your disease causes pain and uncertainty in your life’. But it's much more than that: peripheral inflammation drives the brain inflammation that induces mood disorders, but mood disorders can also influence the periphery. It's a two-way street.” This reciprocal relationship shows just how intertwined the gut and brain are: it’s a connection that we are only now beginning to understand.

There is currently no cure for IBD, and most treatment research is dedicated to treating the physical symptoms of gut-inflammation. By studying this gut-brain axis, Matisz hopes to find new, innovative therapies to treat the mental side of IBD as well: “Approaching these diseases with this in mind will lead to better understanding of the pathology and etiology of these diseases, better management and targeted treatment of symptoms, and more efficacious therapies.” These therapies will become an important step towards treating these diseases, especially as they become more common in Canadians.

In 2018, nearly 270,000 Canadians indicated they were living with IBD. According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, that number is expected to rise to 400,000 by 2030, representing approximately one per cent of Canada’s total population. With IBD on the rise, it’s essential to find new, cheaper and effective treatments for both the physical and mental symptoms. Matisz hopes her research leads to treatments that help secure better physical and mental health for those impacted by IBD.

Dr. Chelsea Matisz, Department of Neuroscience

Matisz is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Neuroscience, working under the supervision of Dr. Aaron Gruber. Her research is currently funded by Alberta Innovates PDF. When not in her lab, she is keenly interested in science communication and an advocate for women in STEM.