Offering a ray of hope for people with unexplained chronic constipation, researchers have shown a surprising link between constipation and herpes infection.
Individuals with herpes have reported seemingly unrelated symptoms such as constipation and urinary retention (inability to empty the bladder), but the mechanism was not understood. So, the research team decided to investigate using mice models of herpes simplex virus-1, the dominant cause of genital herpes in the US.
They found that the herpes virus spread from the genitals to nerves in the spinal chord, and then on to neurons in the colon, killing them. The damage to the colonic neurons prevented the movement of food along the digestive tract, leading to an enlarged colon and disease.
While the effects in mice are distinct from what happens in people with herpes, the study shows a previously unrecognised disease process.
“The key finding is that there is this unexpected infection in the neurons in the colon wall after herpes infection,” said lead researcher Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, US. The findings were published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.
“Other members of the herpes virus family, including Epstein-Barr virus, chicken pox virus, and cytomegalovirus have been found in the neurons of the colon of people with unexplained chronic constipation,” Iwasaki, who is also an investigator at Maryland-based non-profit Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said.
“When doctors can’t figure out the cause of these chronic intestinal conditions, one thing to look at is a viral infection,” she explained.