Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome appear to be suffering from widespread inflammation of the brain, according to a new study from Japan that has caught the attention of patients with the illness and the scientists seeking to unlock its puzzles. Moreover, the study, published in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, found that severity of symptoms was correlated with the degree of inflammation seen in PET scans.
The study was small—only nine patients and ten healthy controls—so the findings would need to be replicated in much larger samples before they could be considered confirmed or proven. But it is believed to be the first study to show direct evidence for “neuroinflammation” in people with the illness, the authors reported.
The findings suggest that the more scientific name for the illness—“myalgic encephalomyelitis” or “inflammation of the brain and spinal cord with muscle pain”—is a more accurate description than chronic fatigue syndrome. (The illness is most frequently referred to these days as ME/CFS; patients despise the name chronic fatigue syndrome and understandably perceive it as dismissive and condescending.)
Neuroinflammation has long been suspected to play a role in illnesses like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease. And patients with ME/CFS have been shown to be experiencing widespread immune-system activation, as with autoimmune diseases. With ME/CFS, experts generally believe that acute viral infections or other physiologic insults trigger an inflammatory response that doesn’t shut itself down.
People with the illness themselves experience significant neurological symptoms. They suffer from problems with concentration and memory—a phenomenon often referred to as “brain fog”—as well as sleep disorders.
The Japanese team, led by researchers from the University of Osaka, have previously documented other brain abnormalities in people with the illness. If the findings of this study can be replicated and confirmed—a big "if"—they would open up new strategies for diagnosis and treatment.