Abnormal neuronal response to rectal and anal stimuli in patients treated for distal rectal cancer with high-dose chemoradiotherapy followed by watchful waiting

Susanne Haas*, Pia Møller Faaborg, Christina Brock, Klaus Krogh, Mikkel Gram, Lilli Lundby, Asbjørn Mohr Drewes, Søren Laurberg, Peter Christensen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Watchful waiting in patients with rectal cancer with complete clinical response after chemoradiation therapy has gained increased popularity to avoid morbidity and mortality associated with surgery. Irradiation of the pelvis causes bowel dysfunction, but the effect on anorectal sensory function remains obscure in this patient category. OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to characterize the sensory pathways of the gut-brain axis in patients with rectal cancer treated solely with chemoradiation therapy (nonconventional regime/dose) compared with healthy volunteers. DESIGN: This is an explorative study. SETTINGS: Sensory evaluation by rectal distension was performed and cortical evoked potentials were recorded during rapid balloon distensions of the rectum and anal canal. Latencies and amplitudes of cortical evoked potentials were compared, and the relative amplitude of 5 spectral bands from recorded cortical evoked potentials was used as an additional proxy of neuronal processing. PATIENTS: Patients with rectal cancer solely with chemoradiation therapy (n = 13) a median of 3.2 years ago (range, 2.3-5.6 y) and healthy volunteers (n = 13) were included. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Cortical evoked potentials were measured. RESULTS: Patients had 35% lower rectal capacity at a maximum tolerable volume (p = 0.007). We found no differences in rectal cortical evoked potential latencies (p = 0.09) and amplitudes (p = 0.38) between groups. However, spectral analysis of rectal cortical evoked potentials showed a decrease in θ (4-8 Hz) and an increase in β (12-32 Hz) band activity in patients (all p < 0.001). Anal cortical potentials showed an increase in α (8-12 Hz) and β and a decrease in γ (32-70 Hz) band activity (all p < 0.001) in patients compared with healthy volunteers. LIMITATIONS: This is an explorative study of limited size. CONCLUSIONS: Chemoradiation therapy for distal rectal cancer causes abnormal cortical processing of both anal and rectal sensory input. Such central changes may play a role in symptomatic patients, especially when refractory to local treatments. See Video Abstract at http://links.lww.com/DCR/B270.

Original languageEnglish
JournalDiseases of the Colon and Rectum
Issue number9
Pages (from-to)1234-1241
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2020


  • Anal canal
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked brain potentials
  • Rectal cancer
  • Rectum
  • Watch and wait

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