Monday 11 September 2017

Big data: correlation between migraine and IBS

A study involving anonymous patient data from 480,000 people reveals surprising genetic correlations between various disorders. These correlations– such as between IBS and migraine – do not appear in the current illness classification systems.

What is big data? In brief, this involves the use of statistical models on very large datasets. These tend to be performed by large companies to monitor online consumer behaviour and promote purchasing behaviour. But the analysis techniques of big data can also be applied to anonymised medical data from healthcare insurers. And in turn this reveals useful findings for health practices.


Migraine and IBS

Researchers at the University of Chicago (US) analysed the medical files of 480,000 people [1]. They found a strong genetic correlation between migraine and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which suggests that migraine has an inflammatory component.


It was also found that many of the genes involved in type 1 diabetes are similar to those involved in high blood pressure. Finally, significant correlations were found between asthma, allergic rhinitis, osteoarthritis and dermatitis, disorders that are not normally linked to one another. These genetic susceptibilities are strongly influenced by environmental factors, through the epigenetic environment.


Confirmation of previous insights

In 2006, a large-scale study involving more than 25,000 people had already revealed that people who suffer from migraine are 40 to 80 percent more likely to also have IBS and vice versa [2]. Besides this, the likelihood of fibromyalgia and depression were found to be significantly higher. Prior to this study, there was only anecdotal evidence for these links. The big data study was performed with a cohort consisting of almost twenty times more people than the study performed in 2006. The evidence is therefore much stronger and underpins our experiences within natural health practice.


No correlations in illness classification

As well as interesting correlations, the results of the study also reveal a fundamental problem: standard illness classifications, based on symptoms and anatomy, do not show the important correlations between illnesses with the same underlying (genetic) risk factors. For example, no correlations could be found in ICD-9 or in phenotypical classifications.


In ICD-9, migraine is classified as a neurological disorder, whilst IBS is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine. This delineation has an adverse impact on the treatment of these disorders, which should always go hand-in-hand. When treating migraine, you are also treating the intestine and what enters the body through food. To make this as conventional as possible, the researchers propose a new classification system.


“Because of the large number of families who participated in the study, we were able to precisely estimate genetic and environmental correlations, from which we were able to extract the corresponding causes of many different disorders. Using these data, we have created a new classification system for illnesses that is based on their intrinsic biology”, say the researchers.


You can read more information about this in the article from Nature Genetics under sources.



  1. Kanix Wang, Hallie Gaitsch, Hoifung Poon, Nancy J Cox & Andrey Rzhetsky, Classification of common human diseases derived from shared genetic and environmental determinants, Nature Genetics (2017)
  2. J Alexander Cole, Kenneth J Rothman, Howard J Cabral, Yuqing Zhang and Francis A Farraye, Migraine, fibromyalgia, and depression among people with IBS: a prevalence study, BMC Gastroenterology 2006 6:26