Stress is a known trigger for the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that presents with abnormal bowel habits and abdominal pain due to visceral hypersensitivity. While behavioral therapies have been used to attenuate IBS symptoms, the underlying mechanisms by which these therapies interact with stress-induced pathology remains to be delineated. Here we use a rat model to test the hypothesis that exposure to environmental enrichment (EE) inhibits stress-induced changes within the brain-gut axis to prevent visceral and somatic hypersensitivity and colonic hyperpermeability.
Female rats (n = 8/group) were housed in EE one week before and one week during exposure to water avoidance stress (WAS) while controls were housed in standard cages (SH). One day after the final WAS exposure, colonic and somatic sensitivity were assessed by the visceromotor response (VMR) to colorectal distension (CRD) and withdrawal threshold elicited by an electronic von Frey on the hind paw of the rats respectively. All rats were returned to SH for 3 weeks before colonic and somatic sensitivity were reassessed on day 28. The rats were then immediately euthanized and the spinal cord was collected to assess changes in neuronal activation (assessed via ERK phosphorylation) in response to noxious CRD. A separate cohort of animals (n = 8/group) that did not undergo behavioral assessments was euthanized the day after the final WAS exposure and the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA) was collected to investigate WAS and EE induced epigenetic changes at the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) and corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) promoter. The colon from these rats was also collected to assess colonic permeability via changes in transepithelial electrical resistance (TEER) in vitro.
Exposure to stress persistently increased VMR to CRD (P < 0.01) and decreased the hind paw withdrawal threshold (P < 0.001) in female rats. WAS also decreased TEER in the colon tissue of female rats (p = 0.05). In the CeA, WAS induced a decrease in histone acetylation at the GR promoter but increased histone acetylation at the CRH promoter and reduced GR-CRH interactions in the CeA. Analysis of the spinal cord showed that WAS increased CRD-evoked ERK phosphorylation in the dorsal horn. Exposure to EE prevented WAS-induced changes in the CeA, dorsal horn and colon respectively to prevent visceral and somatic hypersensitivity.
Our data reveals that behavioral therapies can produce long lasting molecular and epigenetic changes that can prevent stress-induced pathologies even after completion of the therapy. These results highlight the potential mechanisms by which behavioral therapies may ameliorate visceral pain associated stress-related pathologies such as the irritable bowel syndrome.

Copyright © 2018. Published by Elsevier Inc.