Phenotypic changes in colonocytes following acute stress or activation of mast cells in mice: implications for delayed epithelial barrier dysfunction

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Background and aim:

Stressful life events are known to modulate the development or relapse of disease in both inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel disease patients but underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Stress is known to effect mast cells, interferon γ (IFN-γ), and myosin light chain phosphorylation to trigger colonic epithelial barrier dysfunction. The aim of this study was to investigate whether acute stress induced or chemical mast cell activation impaired expression and function of epithelial tight junctions, and altered colonocyte differentiation in mice.


Colonic paracellular permeability was assessed as the in vivo lumen to blood ratio of 51Cr-EDTA in different groups of mice (controls, stressed, mast cell degranulator BrX-537A treated), pretreated or not with the mast cell stabiliser doxantrazole. Involvement of mast cells and IFN-γ was evaluated in wild-type and IFN-γ deficient mice. Tight junction alteration was assessed by histology, transmission electron microscopy, and real time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. Colonocyte differentiation was determined by protein kinase C ζ (PKCζ) immunofluorescence and western blotting, and alkaline phosphatase activity assay.


Acute stress induced a three day delayed increase in colonic paracellular permeability which involved mast cell degranulation and overproduction of IFN-γ. The colonic epithelial barrier was morphologically altered and expression of mRNA encoding tight junction proteins ZO-2 and occludin was decreased. Moreover, three days after acute stress, colonocyte differentiation was reduced, as shown by decreased expression of both PKCζ isotype and alkaline phosphatase.


These data highlight new mechanisms whereby an acute stress acts on the gastrointestinal tract by inducing alterations in colonocyte differentiation and decreased expression of mRNA encoding tight junction proteins. Thus phenotypic changes in colonocytes could pave the way for stress related intestinal disorders.

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