The nociceptive and autonomic nervous systems (ANS) are significantly intertwined. Decoupling of these systems may occur in pathological pain conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). We investigated ANS activity and its association with visceral perception and brain activity during rectal distention in 27 patients with non-constipated IBS and 33 controls by assessing heart rate variability (HRV) using electrocardiography at rest, before, and during colorectal distention. Brain responses to colorectal distention were measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging and correlated with individual ANS function parameters. The IBS group displayed blunted sympathovagal balance [low/high-frequency ratio (LF:HF) of HRV] in response to colorectal distention compared with controls (P = 0.003). In controls, basal parasympathetic tone (HF component of HRV) was significantly negatively correlated with toleration threshold to the rectal distention, but not in patients with IBS (group comparison P = 0.04). Further, a positive correlation between baseline HF values and neural responses to rectal distension was found in the right caudate, bilateral dorsolateral anterior cingulate cortex, and pregenual anterior cingulate cortex in the control group but not in the IBS group. The results indicate abnormal interactions between ANS activity and the brain mechanisms underlying visceral perception in patients with IBS.
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