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A study from Japan indicates that people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) could be objectively and quantifiably identified by using PET scanning to look for inflammation markers in the brain. Thus far, chronic fatigue syndrome has remained a lesser known but still very prevalent and debilitating condition. It is hoped that being able to search for concrete evidence of inflammation and other disease markers in the brains of people with CFS will allow doctors to easily identify the disease, and give credence to those who suffer from it.
Today, an estimated one million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome—a number that surpasses that of patients suffering from more familiar diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and some forms of cancer. As the name implies, chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis) is characterized by long-lasting fatigue that is unrelated to the normal exertions of daily life. A person suffering from CFS is likely to experience constant exhaustion, non-refreshing sleep, headaches, memory loss, and/or pain in the muscles, joints, lymph nodes, or throat. Thus far, no single cause of chronic fatigue syndrome has been identified, but correlations with the XMRV virus are being explored. Risk factors include nutritional deficiencies, stress, immune dysfunction, and incidental infections.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that chronic fatigue syndrome is a real disease. The name “chronic fatigue syndrome” was first coined in the 1980s, but many doctors remain skeptical, if not openly critical. Some are willing to consider CFS to be a psychological pathology, but other question even that. A good number of doctors have never even heard of chronic fatigue syndrome. Perhaps even more worrisome is that many doctors are over-worked and fatigued themselves, possibly contributing to the notion that such a state of existence is an unfortunate but normal part of modern living. All of these factors mean that patients looking to explore their condition face considerable impediments to acquiring treatment. Callous phrases like “just sleep more” or “just drink coffee” not only prevent individual treatment, but also de-legitimize the plight of over a million Americans.
New research from the RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies, the Osaka City University, and the Kansait University of Welfare Sciences in Japan have made a discovery that could offer credence to the status of chronic fatigue syndrome as a real disease. The researchers performed PET scans on ten healthy patients and nine subjects diagnosed with CFS. From these scans, the researchers observed that patients suffering from CFS had higher levels of neuro-inflammation. In particular, this inflammation was centralized in very specific parts of the brain, namely the hippocampus, thalamus, amygdala, midbrain, and pons. The level of inflammation in these regions correlated with the patient’s self-reported symptoms. For example, patients who reported impaired cognition showed higher levels of inflammation in the amygdala—a cognitive center of the brain involved with impulse control and strong emotions.
In the future, it is possible that identifying inflammation in the brain, in addition to patient self-reporting, could be used as a diagnostic tool for identifying cases of chronic fatigue syndrome. With empirical evidence of a physiological manifestation from an underlying pathology, perceptions of those suffering from chronic fatigue could be changed.
By Sarah Takushi