Gut health and mood genetically entwined

25 February 2021

Stomach ulcers are linked to depression, say researchers who conducted the world’s largest study of genetic factors in peptic ulcer disease.

Professor Naomi Wray and Dr Yeda Wu from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience have provided clues to how the gut and brain work together by studying health data from nearly half a million people.

Peptic ulcers affect 1 in 10

Dr Wu said the research supported a holistic approach to caring for patients with gastrointestinal diseases like peptic ulcers, which affect between five and 10 per cent of people at some time in their lives.

“As a medical student, I noticed how some patients’ gastrointestinal symptoms improved after psychotherapy or psychiatry treatment,” Dr Wu said.

“This study linking major depression with an increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders also explains the co-morbidity of the conditions.”

Highlighting lifestyle and mental health

Stress was thought to be the leading cause of peptic ulcer disease until it was linked to the bacteria H. pylori by Australian Nobel Prize winners Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

Dr Wu said medication had since reduced the disease’s prevalence, but the importance of other risk factors including lifestyle and psychological factors now needed to be re-emphasised.

“To identify why some people develop ulcers, we studied health data from 456,327 individuals from the UK Biobank and identified eight genetic variations associated with the risk of getting peptic ulcer disease,” Professor Wray said.

Genetics reveals risk factors for gut health

“Six of the eight variations can be linked to why some people are more prone to H. pylori infection, which would make them more susceptible to peptic ulcer disease.”

Professor Naomi Wray

Professor Wray said an existing peptic ulcer treatment targets the gene linked to one of these genetic variations and so identification of other associated genes could offer opportunities to develop new treatments.

“Access to vast health and genomic data sets allows researchers to advance understanding of many complex diseases and traits,” she said.

“Resources such as the UK Biobank have made it possible to now study the genetic contribution to common diseases, such as peptic ulcer disease, and understand the risks more fully,” Professor Wray said.

“If we can provide genetic risk scores to patients, it could be part of a prevention program to help reduce the rates of peptic ulcer disease.”

This research is published in Nature Communications, and funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

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