Intestinal permeability defects: is it time to treat?

Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013 Sep;11(9):1075-83. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2013.07.001. Epub 2013 Jul 12.


An essential role of the intestinal epithelium is to separate luminal contents from the interstitium, a function primarily determined by the integrity of the epithelium and the tight junction that seals the paracellular space. Intestinal tight junctions are selectively permeable, and intestinal permeability can be increased physiologically in response to luminal nutrients or pathologically by mucosal immune cells and cytokines, the enteric nervous system, and pathogens. Compromised intestinal barrier function is associated with an array of clinical conditions, both intestinal and systemic. Although most available data are correlative, some studies support a model where cycles of increased intestinal permeability, intestinal immune activation, and subsequent immune-mediated barrier loss contribute to disease progression. This model is applicable to intestinal and systemic diseases. However, it has not been proven, and both mechanistic and therapeutic studies are ongoing. Nevertheless, the correlation between increased intestinal permeability and disease has caught the attention of the public, leading to a rise in popularity of the diagnosis of "leaky gut syndrome," which encompasses a range of systemic disorders. Proponents claim that barrier restoration will cure underlying disease, but this has not been demonstrated in clinical trials. Moreover, human and mouse studies show that intestinal barrier loss alone is insufficient to initiate disease. It is therefore uncertain whether increased permeability in these patients is a cause or effect of the underlying disorder. Although drug targets that may mediate barrier restoration have been proposed, none have been proven effective. As such, current treatments for barrier dysfunction should target the underlying disease.

Keywords: CA-MLCK; CD; Claudin; Crohn’s disease; GVHD; Graft vs Host Disease; IBD; IBS; IL; Inflammatory Bowel Disease; Irritable Bowel Syndrome; Leaky Gut Syndrome; MLCK; Myosin Light Chain Kinase; TNF; Tight Junction; constitutively active–myosin light chain kinase; graft-versus-host disease; inflammatory bowel disease; interleukin; irritable bowel syndrome; myosin light chain kinase; tumor necrosis factor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / complications*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / therapy
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiology*
  • Permeability*