Review article: Associations between immune activation, intestinal permeability and the irritable bowel syndrome

Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2012 Dec;36(11-12):1009-31. doi: 10.1111/apt.12080. Epub 2012 Oct 15.


Background: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders, markedly impairing patients' quality of life. Drug development for IBS treatment has been hampered by the lack of understanding of IBS aetiology. In recent years, numerous data have emerged that suggest the involvement of immune activation in IBS, at least in a subset of patients.

Aim: To determine whether immune activation and intestinal permeabilisation are more frequently observed in IBS patients compared with healthy controls.

Methods: The scientific bibliography was searched using the following keywords: irritable bowel syndrome, inflammation, immune activation, permeabilisation, intestine, assay, histology and human. The retrieved studies, including blood, faecal and histological studies, were analysed to provide a comprehensive and structured overview of the available data including the type of assay, type of inflammatory marker investigated or intestinal segment studied.

Results: Immune activation was more frequently observed in IBS patients than in healthy controls. An increase in the number of mast cells and lymphocytes, an alteration in cytokine levels and intestinal permeabilisation were reported in IBS patients. No consistent changes in the numbers of B cells or enterochromaffin cells or in mucosal serotonin production were demonstrated.

Conclusions: The changes observed were modest and often heterogeneous among the studied population. Only appropriate interventions improving irritable bowel syndrome symptoms could highlight and confirm the role of immune activation in this pathophysiology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cytokines / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa / immunology*
  • Intestines / physiology
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / immunology*
  • Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Mast Cells / immunology*
  • Permeability


  • Cytokines