Kirsten Tillisch, M.D. ’97, is assistant professor at UCLA’s Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress in the Department of Medicine, Division of Digestive Diseases.
MY INTEREST IN FUNCTIONAL GASTROINTESTIANL (GI) DISORDERS has grown from my interactions with patients. They have shown me how closely the brain and the GI tract interact. It’s a two-way street. For example, many people may feel an upset stomach or “butterflies” when they are nervous or stressed, and conversely, when people have abdominal pain or discomfort, their mood can be adversely affected. In 2006, I received a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award to gain new skills in neuroimaging that I can apply to brain-gut interactions. I have been studying the effect of visceral stimulation and emotional imagery on the brain in healthy people and in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Currently, I am focusing on the effects of mindbody treatments for IBS, such as hypnosis and meditation, to see if they can improve symptoms via their impact on these brain networks.
The biggest research challenge
THE MOST FRUSTRATING DIFFICULTY HAS BEEN OBTAINING FUNDING to conduct research using complementary or alternative treatments such as hypnosis or meditation. They are of great interest to patients and may have important health benefits, but we do not understand them well enough. Unfortunately, despite the potential broad application of these modalities, there is very limited funding to study them rigorously. We have been fortunate to have the availability of the Oppenheimer Seed Grant Program in Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine, in a competitive format, and also to have funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The highlight of the project so far and its effect
OUR MOST EXCITING FINDING IN RECENT WEEKS has been a reproducible difference in the resting brain activity between IBS and healthy control patients. The difference is seen in the anterior insula, a region that is associated with the integration of physical sensations with emotional and cognitive input.
The immediate and future steps for the project
WE ARE CONTINUING TO EVALUATE BRAIN CHANGES IN IBS, with plans toward developing models to determine optimal treatment strategies for individual patients. In addition, we are investigating the role of brain changes in a variety of GI syndromes.