New Deakin trial to treat IBD with psychological therapy

Your emotions can affect your digestive system. Deakin researchers are investigating whether this link can be reversed to treat gut problems.

Researchers from Deakin University’s Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED) are investigating whether talk therapy can treat symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Currently seeking participants from Australia and New Zealand, the clinical trial is the first-of-its-kind to be conducted entirely online.

IBD describes disorders that cause chronic inflammation of the digestive system.

‘They occur when the immune system reacts in an exaggerated manner to normal gut bacteria,’ Professor Antonina Mikocka-Walus says.

Their symptoms include bleeding, diarrhoea, weight loss and anaemia. People with these conditions might need to use a toilet 20-30 times a day, making it difficult for them to get on with their daily lives. Many people with IBD also experience anxiety or depression.

If you’ve ever had stomach pain when you’re stressed, you’ll know your emotions can affect your digestive system.

‘The brain and gut speak to each other constantly through a network of neural, hormonal and immunological messages,’ Prof. Mikocka-Walus says.

This brain-gut chat can be disrupted on either side by stress or disease. When their symptoms flare, people with IBD are likely to experience increased anxiety or depression. But Prof. Mikocka-Walus has also found that anxiety and depression are associated with worse IBD symptoms  in the long-term.

Prof. Mikocka-Walus is now investigating whether this brain-gut link can be used to improve the symptoms of IBD from the brain end of the equation. By alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression, the trial might also find ways to bring relief for the physical symptoms of IBD.

Current treatments for IBD tend to have mostly short-term benefits. While they may initially improve the quality of life of people with IBD, the improvements often disappear within a few months.

‘They do not deal with the negative thoughts and feelings specific to chronic diseases,’ adds Dr Daniel Romano, trial manager.

The program involves four psychologist-directed online sessions as well as self-directed work using online resources.

This format removes barriers for people who live remotely or are otherwise unable to attend clinics due to their symptoms.

How to get involved

People diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or indeterminate colitis and experience symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, are encouraged to register their interest to take part in a short screening process that will determine if they’re eligible.