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Director, Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders

Professor of Medicine Adjunct Professor of OB-GYN


Curriculum Vitae | |

Research Interests

Gastrointestinal motility disorders, fecal incontinence, constipation, rectal pain, intestinal pseudo-obstruction, gastroparesis, dysphagia.


Dr. Whitehead is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Division of Urogynecology, and Director of the UNC Center for Functional Gastrointestinal and Motility Disorders. Dr. Whitehead heads a research team whose primary goals are (1) to delineate the physiological and psychological mechanisms responsible for the etiology and course of functional bowel disorders, (2) to explain the excess overlap of irritable bowel syndrome with other somatic and psychiatric disorders, and (3) to identify the causes and best treatments for pelvic floor disorders such as fecal incontinence, constipation, and chronic rectal pain.

Dr. Whitehead is a career investigator who has been continuously funded by NIH since 1977. He was supported by a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) research scientist award for 22 years and has received research support from NIDDK, NICHD, NIA, NINR, and NIMH. His 35 NIH grants have included studies of (1) the causes and treatment of fecal incontinence in special populations such as spina bifida and the elderly, (2) the causes and treatment of constipation, (3) treatment of rumination syndrome in developmentally disabled children, (4) the role of visceral perception in IBS, (5) comorbidity of IBS with other disorders, and (6) psychological and behavioral treatment of IBS. He has published over 280 journal articles, books, and book chapters and over 250 abstracts on these topics.

Dr. Whitehead received his PhD from the University of Chicago in clinical psychology and physiology in 1973 and did his dissertation research on the biofeedback conditioning of gastric acid secretion. After graduation, he joined the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and worked for seven years in the Psychosomatic Service where he began his research on visceral perception and IBS. In 1979, after a year as a visiting scientist at the Gerontology Research Center of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Dr. Whitehead was recruited to the Department of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and established a 15-year collaboration with Dr. Marvin Schuster. He was chief of the Gastrointestinal Physiology Laboratory at the Bayview campus of Johns Hopkins and continued to evolve his research on pain perception in IBS, the biofeedback treatment of fecal incontinence, and the understanding and treatment of rumination syndrome and failure to thrive in children.

In 1993, Dr. Whitehead was recruited to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to head the GI Motility Program, which he developed into a regional referral center. In 1994 he and Dr. Drossman founded the UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders, and in 2006 he joined the Division of Urogynecology to provide training to their fellowship program in diagnostic assessment of anorectal disorders as well as research training. In 2002 he and Dr. Drossman were awarded an NIH Mind-Body Infrastructure grant (R24 DK67674) to provide core support for an expansion of the Center’s research program.

Dr. Whitehead is on the NIH Behavioral Medicine Study Section (2008-2013) and serves on the Data and Safety Monitoring Board of the NIDDK Gastroparesis Research Network and the Scientific Advisory Board of the NIDDK MAPP (Multi-disciplinary Approach to the Study of Chronic Pelvic Pain) Research Network. He was a member of the planning committee for the NIH State of the Science Conference on the Prevention of Fecal and Urinary Incontinence (2007) and currently serves on the NIDDK Campaign for Public Awareness of Bowel Incontinence. He is a Fellow of the American Gastroenterological Association and the American College of Gastroenterology. He received the Functional Brain Gut Research Scientist Award for Clinical Research in 1999, the Excellence in Clinical Research Award from the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in 2003, and the Janssen Award for Clinical Research in 2004.

Dr. Whitehead serves on the board of directors of the Rome Foundation. He chaired the Rome I working team on Anorectal Disorders in 1990-1994, the Rome II working team on Anorectal Disorders in 1995-2000, and co-chaired the working team on Design of Treatment Trials from 2001-2006. He chaired the International Resource Committee for the Rome Foundation, organized and chaired an international conference on outcome measures in clinical trials, and led a multisite study to validate the Rome III diagnostic questionnaire in 2006. On behalf of the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, he organized two international consensus conferences on the treatment of fecal incontinence (1999 and 2002) and led a workshop on design of treatment trials for pharmaceutical companies, academic investigators, the NIDDK, and the FDA for 8 years. He served as associate editor for Gastroenterology 2001-2006.

He is also actively involved in research training. He has trained 46 physicians, psychologists, and medical students in research skills of whom 28 went into academic positions, 5 are in practice settings, 3 are lost to follow up, and 10 are still in training. He also organizes and participates in preceptorships and CME courses on a regular basis, in the U.S. and internationally.

Additional awards and leadership positions in national and international organizations are as follows:

  • Co-founder and past chair of Functional Brain-Gut Research Group (FBG) special interest section within the American Gastroenterological Association
  • Head of the steering committee and chair of two multidisciplinary conferences on fecal incontinence sponsored by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD)
  • Co-chair of the fecal incontinence subcommittee for the International Consultation on Incontinence
  • Advisory Board for the General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) at the UNC School of Medicine
  • Fellow of both the American College of Gastroenterology and the American Gastroenterological Association