No separation of medical and mental health

13 July 2015

Professor Adrian Liston

2005 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow, Professor Adrian Liston, is one of the researchers in an important study which provides new insights into the cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), underscoring the connection between psychological factors and the immune system.

Adrian, who is now Professor of Translational Immunology at the University of Leuven and the VIB, Belgium says “The most important message from this research is that we cannot separate medical and mental health. The two influence each other; in our study high levels of anxiety or depression increase susceptibility to gastrointestinal infection and long-term complications.”

The findings in this latest research are based on an investigation of a drinking water contamination incident in Belgium in 2010, and have been published in the leading international medical journal Gut.

Described by Professor Liston as an accidental experiment, the study was set up to look at the long-term effects of an outbreak of gastroenteritis after 18,000 people came into contact with contaminated drinking water in the towns of Schelle and Hemiksem.

As reported in, following the patients from the initial contamination to a year after the outbreak, the researchers could assess what factors changed the risk of long-term complications. They found that individuals with higher levels of anxiety or depression prior to the water contamination developed gastrointestinal infections of increased severity. They also had greater risk of long-term IBS.

Professor Liston says there are broad applications for these research findings.

“There is a strong tendency to compartmentalise society - economy, welfare, health, education, etc. In reality, each individual moves around all these different sectors of society on a daily basis, so each influences the other.

“The Whitehall Study, a major UK study that is still ongoing, found that the degree of autonomy people experience in their jobs has a major influence on mortality. Other studies demonstrate the link between un/under-employment or social disenfranchisement on health. These effects are rarely taken into account when designing public policy. For example, a policy change to welfare that decreases financial security may save the government a few dollars in the welfare budget, but it will cause much larger increases in the health budget due to the flow-over effects of anxiety.

“What we really need is an integrated strategy that takes into account urban design, the welfare safety net, public health, employment structures and recreation”, Professor Liston said.

An abstract of the paper in Gut can be found at:

Tags: NHMRC Menzies Fellow Medical research'