, Volume 214, Issue 1, pp 71–88 | Cite as

Maternal separation as a model of brain–gut axis dysfunction

  • Siobhain M. O’MahonyEmail author
  • Niall P. Hyland
  • Timothy G. Dinan
  • John F. Cryan



Early life stress has been implicated in many psychiatric disorders ranging from depression to anxiety. Maternal separation in rodents is a well-studied model of early life stress. However, stress during this critical period also induces alterations in many systems throughout the body. Thus, a variety of other disorders that are associated with adverse early life events are often comorbid with psychiatric illnesses, suggesting a common underlying aetiology. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder that is thought to involve a dysfunctional interaction between the brain and the gut. Essential aspects of the brain–gut axis include spinal pathways, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, the immune system, as well as the enteric microbiota. Accumulating evidence suggest that stress, especially in early life, is a predisposing factor to IBS.


The objective of this review was to assess and compile the most relevant data on early life stress and alterations at all levels of the brain gut axis.


In this review, we describe the components of the brain–gut axis individually and how they are altered by maternal separation. The separated phenotype is characterised by alterations of the intestinal barrier function, altered balance in enteric microflora, exaggerated stress response and visceral hypersensitivity, which are all evident in IBS.


Thus, maternally separated animals are an excellent model of brain–gut axis dysfunction for the study of disorders such as IBS and for the development of novel therapeutic interventions.


Maternal separation Brain–gut axis Early life Stress Animal model Irritable bowel syndrome 



The Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre is a research centre funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) through the Irish Government’s National Development Plan. The authors and their work were supported by SFI (grant nos. 02/CE/B124 and 07/CE/B1368). The centre is also funded by GlaxoSmithKline. JFC is also funded by European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (grant no. FP7/2007–2013, Grant Agreement 201714). The authors would like to thank Dr. Marcela Julio-Bravo for assisting with the artwork in this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Siobhain M. O’Mahony
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Niall P. Hyland
    • 1
    • 3
  • Timothy G. Dinan
    • 1
    • 4
  • John F. Cryan
    • 1
    • 3
    • 5
  1. 1.Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, Biosciences InstituteUniversity College CorkCorkIreland
  2. 2.Department of AnatomyUniversity College CorkCorkIreland
  3. 3.Department of Pharmacology and TherapeuticsUniversity College CorkCorkIreland
  4. 4.Department of PsychiatryCork University HospitalCorkIreland
  5. 5.School of Pharmacy, Kavanagh Pharmacy BuildingCorkIreland

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