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Possible Clues to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Inflammation may play a role, small study suggests

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Alan Mozes

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, May 2, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Seeking better insight into chronic fatigue syndrome, a new brain scan investigation has pinpointed what could be the first evidence of a connection between nerve cell inflammation and the onset of this debilitating and somewhat mysterious illness, researchers say.

The finding stems from a small PET scan study, led by Yasuhito Nakatomi of the RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies in Hyogo, Japan. The study involved just nine patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and 10 healthy participants.

However, the investigators believe that their initial results are the first to show that neuro-inflammation is a distinct feature of chronic fatigue syndrome. This inflammation affects specific areas of the brain that are commonly linked with the kind of fatigue, pain, depression, and thought-process difficulties long associated with the syndrome, the researchers noted.

"While the results will need to be confirmed in larger studies, it is a very exciting finding," said Suzanne Vernon, scientific director of the CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome) Association of America. She was not involved with the new study.

"This is the first time images of this type of brain inflammation have been seen in chronic fatigue syndrome," she added, "and provides the evidence of the seriousness and debilitating nature of this disease."

The findings appeared online recently in advance of print publication in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.

The root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is the subject of much debate. While some health experts believe it is bacteria driven, others think it's most probably brought on by a virus.

The syndrome -- which can take hold without warning -- is typically characterized by extreme exhaustion, muscle and joint pain, sleep difficulties and thinking problems. The result is often an inability to perform even simple everyday tasks.

In the new study, all the participants first filled out questionnaires that asked them to indicate to what degree they were experiencing any telltale signs of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Brain imaging was then conducted in key areas of the brain, including the cingulate cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, midbrain, and pons regions.

All signs of neuro-inflammation were then stacked up against chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms.

The result? While nerve cell inflammation was found to be "widespread" throughout the brains of chronic fatigue syndrome patients, no such inflammation was observed among the healthy study participants.

Vernon said the study also found a graded relationship between levels of inflammation and the severity of disease.

"The higher the inflammation, the more severe the patients' symptoms," she noted.

The study authors further found that neuro-inflammation spiked in patterns that directly correlated with chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms, ratcheting up in brain regions that are central to thought-processes typically impaired by the condition.

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