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Sex-Related Differences of Cortical Thickness in Patients with Chronic Abdominal Pain


Background & aims

Regional reductions in gray matter (GM) have been reported in several chronic somatic and visceral pain conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and chronic pancreatitis. Reported GM reductions include insular and anterior cingulate cortices, even though subregions are generally not specified. The majority of published studies suffer from limited sample size, heterogeneity of populations, and lack of analyses for sex differences. We aimed to characterize regional changes in cortical thickness (CT) in a large number of well phenotyped IBS patients, taking into account the role of sex related differences.


Cortical GM thickness was determined in 266 subjects (90 IBS [70 predominantly premenopausal female] and 176 healthy controls (HC) [155 predominantly premenopausal female]) using the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI) Pipeline. A combined region of interest (ROI) and whole brain approach was used to detect any sub-regional and vertex-level differences after removing effects of age and total GM volume. Correlation analyses were performed on behavioral data.


While IBS as a group did not show significant differences in CT compared to HCs, sex related differences were observed both within the IBS and the HC groups. When female IBS patients were compared to female HCs, whole brain analysis showed significant CT increase in somatosensory and primary motor cortex, as well as CT decrease in bilateral subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). The ROI analysis showed significant regional CT decrease in bilateral subregions of insular cortex, while CT decrease in cingulate was limited to left sgACC, accounting for the effect of age and GM volume. Several measures of IBS symptom severity showed significant correlation with CT changes in female IBS patients.


Significant, sex related differences in CT are present in both HCs and in IBS patients. The biphasic neuroplastic changes in female IBS patients are related to symptom severity.

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