The Brain-Gut Connection: Dr. Person’s Unique Expertise Addresses Children with Chronic Gastrointestinal Issues

A lightly bearded man smiling and wearing a tie.
Dr. Hannibal Person is the newest addition to Seattle Children’s Gastroenterology and Hepatology team.

Seattle Children’s is excited to welcome Dr. Hannibal Person to the Gastroenterology and Hepatology team. Dr. Person brings a unique triad of general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and pediatric gastroenterology expertise to Seattle Children’s. He is looking forward to building an interdisciplinary program to help children who suffer from chronic gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and pain. His goal is to create a supportive program focused on the brain-gut connection — a true one-of-a-kind program in the U.S.

We sat down with Dr. Person to learn more about his background and his vision for the future.

“I really want Seattle Children’s to be a place where people all over the world who suffer from chronic gastrointestinal symptoms can come and find relief,” said Dr. Person. “We can offer support, guidance and a comprehensive evaluation. People can feel validated, supported, and together we can offer evidence-based treatments to help them feel better and promote their functionality.”

Building a program

Today, there are very few programs in the country that focus on the connection between the brain and the gut, especially in pediatrics.

Dr. Person said it can be difficult for children with chronic issues to find the care they need. If their weight is normal, and they don’t have blood in their stool or other concerning symptoms, they can get pushed aside and lost in the medical system. Dr. Person said that children will sometimes get diagnosed with anxiety or prescribed medication without addressing the underlying issue. It leads to a lot of frustration.

“Often, these families feel invalidated,” he said. “I want to provide a setting where they can feel supported throughout their journey. There’s such a connection between the brain and the gut, and the more we research it, the more we find out and understand. I want to validate what they are feeling and work to find a path forward.”

Determining why a child is experiencing gastrointestinal issues can be a challenge.

“Many chronic conditions can be quite nebulous,” said Dr. Person. “Symptoms often overlap.”

It can be hard to diagnose what’s causing the pain and discomfort, which is why it’s important to address the physical and emotional aspects the child is experiencing. Many patients feel unheard because their providers are not trained in both specialties, so they are often treated in a silo.

“Many of the families I see have felt dismissed,” said Dr. Person. “This kind of dismissal can have serious, lasting consequences.”

“I once had a little girl who came to me in pain,” he said. “She had seen many specialists before she got to me, and her family was frustrated. She felt like no one was listening to her. She drew a picture of her body and highlighted all the areas where she felt pain and described the type of pain she felt. Her whole body was highlighted. It was heartbreaking.”

Cases like this aren’t rare, said Dr. Person. It’s hard to find a medical home where the brain and the gut connection can be evaluated simultaneously and in conjunction with one another.

As a child psychiatry and pediatric gastroenterology expert, Dr. Person is able to integrate his skills to “Dr. Personalize” care — focusing on both the physical and emotional needs of a child.

“My unique expertise gives me the ability to develop comprehensive care plans that include both psychological interventions but also classic medical interventions,” Dr. Person said. “There are few people in the world who have this type of training.”

Unique to pediatrics

Dr. Person said there are some programs in the country that focus on the brain-gut connection in adults, but it’s rare in pediatrics.

“There are many programs that focus on adult populations, but I want to shift the focus on pediatrics. This program will be the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest,” said Dr. Person. “We need to focus on children. If we could provide amazing treatment to kids who are suffering these debilitating disorders, we could prevent these conditions in adulthood. With my expertise, we can address both the psychological aspects as well as the gastrointestinal aspects. There aren’t many providers nationally and internationally that have that skillset.”

It takes a team to care for children with complex medical needs. Dr. Person said the program will consist of specialists in nutrition, gastroenterology, psychology, social work and more.

Seattle Children’s Gastroenterology Program is one of the top-ranked programs of its kind in the U.S. Gastroenterologists, like Dr. Person, help children understand and cope with their illness by treating the whole child, not just their symptoms, and they are specially trained in their field to treat a child’s physical, mental and emotional needs.

“Children with these conditions are missing formative opportunities in their young lives because they’re at home symptomatic and experiencing secondary psychological issues that keep them from engaging with their peers,” said Dr. Person. “Some kids are worried about having to run to the toilet. Others are worried about stigma. I want to help children thrive. We need to support these children, and it all starts with a diagnosis and education. My ultimate goal is to give people a place where they can feel hopeful for the first time.”

When dealing with chronic pain, Dr. Person said there will likely be good and bad days, but he wants families to know it will get better.

“They are in the driver seat,” he said. “There may be bad days and good days, but together, we can navigate this situation.”

Converging expertise

Dr. Person knew from a young age he wanted to be a physician. In college, he studied molecular biology and was drawn to science and human health. He also loved working with kids.

When he started medical school, he thought, “I’m going to be a pediatrician.”

His path at that time was clear. His first clinical rotation was in pediatrics and, after he finished the rotation, he felt like he had found his place. Then, an unexpected curveball came his way. He completed an elective in child psychiatry and was immediately hooked. When he was accepted to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s Triple Board Residency Program, he began training in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and pediatric medicine.

Then he found himself gravitating toward patients with gastrointestinal conditions—his interest piqued by yet another specialty. Dr. Person established a connection with Mount Sinai’s Pediatric Gastroenterology and Hepatology Division and stayed on to do a gastroenterology fellowship.

He was determined to find a way to converge his areas of expertise into a multidisciplinary specialty focused on disorders of gut-brain interactions. Formally called functional gastrointestinal disorders, gut-brain disorders occur when the brain and the gut don’t work well together.

Today, he’s looking forward to a bright future for kids with chronic gastrointestinal issues.

Addressing common disorders in a unique way

Dr. Person said that between 30% and 40% of individuals will meet the criteria for a gastrointestinal disorder, like irritable bowel syndrome, at some point in their life. He also said there could potentially be a troubling connection between chronic gastrointestinal issues and COVID-19. As more people experience gastrointestinal issues after a COVID-19 diagnosis, he said it’s something that needs more research to determine if there is a connection. Today, evidence linking the two is mounting.

“I wonder in a post-COVID world, especially with children who have not been able to be immunized, if we’re going see a lot of kids with chronic GI symptoms without inflammation or infection or some other kind of diagnosable condition at much higher frequencies,” said Dr. Person.

It’s a question Dr. Person is hoping to help answer through compassionate care and continued research, and his multidisciplinary brain-gut program will provide pivotal diagnoses and treatments if the connection between the two is linked.