Dec. 1, 2005 -- Scientists may have found biological evidence of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chronic fatigue syndrome involves severe, unexplained tiredness that lasts for at least six months and doesn't improve with rest.
Chronic fatigue syndrome often greatly interferes with patients' lives. But it hasn't been well understood from a scientific point of view, and its cause is unknown.
The new evidence lies in patients' spinal fluid. Tests show 16 proteins in the spinal fluid of people with chronic fatigue syndrome but not in healthy people, according to a study in BMC Neurology.
Of those 16 proteins, five especially stood out. "If you had one of those that was present, then you had chronic fatigue syndrome," researcher James Baraniuk, MD, tells WebMD.
Baraniuk is an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.
"This ushers in a whole new era for identifying [and] recognizing the legitimacy of these disorders,' he says.
Baraniuk and colleagues compared spinal fluid from 50 people with chronic fatigue syndrome and related conditions to spinal fluid from 22 healthy people.
The researchers originally recruited people with fibromyalgia or Persian Gulf War illness and later realized that many of the patients had chronic fatigue syndrome.
"That's very important because it suggests that these are allied disorders," Baraniuk says, adding that the term "Persian Gulf War illness" is no longer used by the U.S. Army.
Test Not Ready Yet
"I don't believe there's much value in getting a spinal tap and finding somebody to measure these different proteins," Baraniuk says.
"First off, it's a research tool. ... You'd have to measure maybe 20 proteins and look at what the pattern is like. We're not there yet in terms of technology to be able to do that."
He notes that the proteins were identified in two different sets of patients. "The odds of finding these exact same proteins twice [are] astronomical," Baraniuk says.
Breaking New Ground
"People generally and many physicians generally believe chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia are not legitimate disorders," Baraniuk says.
"They sometimes treat these people extremely rudely and don't pay any attention to their symptoms," he continues. "As a result, these patients will go from doctor to doctor. The average is for them to see seven subspecialists a year and have seven different names for the problem."
"They will be told they have functional disorders, which means there's no test you can do to prove it and there's very few drugs that you can take to improve it," Baraniuk says.
"But a study like this shows that these people have something in their cerebral spinal fluid that separates them from the normal population," he says.