A team comprised of scientists at VIB, KU Leuven and UZ Leuven has made significant progress in uncovering the connection between psychological factors and the immune system. Their findings are based on an investigation of a massive drinking water contamination incident in Belgium in 2010, and are now published in the leading international medical journal Gut.
In December 2010, the Belgian communities of Schelle and Hemiksem in the province of Antwerp faced an outbreak of gastroenteritis, with more than 18,000 people exposed to contaminated drinking water. During the outbreak, VIB and KU Leuven set up a scientific task force to study the incident’s long-term effects, led by Guy Boeckxstaens (UZ Leuven / KU Leuven) and Adrian Liston (VIB / KU Leuven).
Seizing an unexpected opportunity
Adrian Liston (VIB/KU Leuven): “The water contamination in Schelle and Hemiksem was an ‘accidental experiment’ on a scale rarely possible in medical research. By following the patients from the initial contamination to a year after the outbreak we were able to find out what factors altered the risk of long-term complications.”
Anxiety and depression affect immune system
The scientists found that individual with higher levels of anxiety or depression prior to the water contamination developed gastrointestinal infections of increased severity. The same individuals also had an increased risk of developing the long-term complication of irritable bowel syndrome, with intermittent abdominal cramps, diarrhea or constipation a year after the initial contamination.
Guy Boeckxstaens (UZ Leuven / KU Leuven): “Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a condition of chronic abdominal pain and altered bowel movements. This is a common condition with large socio-economic costs, yet there is so much that still remains to be discovered about the causes. Our investigation found that that anxiety or depression alters the immune response towards a gastrointestinal infection, which can result in more severe symptoms and the development of chronic irritable bowel syndrome.”
Psychological factors key in preventing long-term complications
The study’s results provide valuable new insight into the cause of irritable bowel syndrome, and underscoring the connection between psychological factors and the immune system.
Adrian Liston (VIB/KU Leuven): “These results once again emphasize the importance of mental health care and social support services. We need to understand that health, society and economics are not independent, and ignoring depression and anxiety results in higher long-term medical costs.”