Chronic fatigue syndrome is not a psychological disorder as previously thought, researchers claim after finding evidence that the condition is caused by changes in brain chemistry.
Controversy has raged for nearly 30 years on whether the debilitating condition that causes pain, physical and mental fatigue and cognitive dysfunction was a genuine illness as critics speculated that it was all in the mind.
Now researchers have found changing levels in a brain molecule called miRNA in patients, which is responsible for turning protein production on and off, subsequently causing the tiring symptoms.
The findings lay the groundwork to better treat and understand the disorder that affects nearly three million Americans.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME, affects between 836,000 and 2.5 million Americans most commonly in their 40s and 50s, according to a National Academy of Medicine report.
Researchers also conducted studies on patients with Gulf War Illness, which causes similar symptoms including chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and joint pain.
Gulf War Illness developed in more than one-fourth of the 697,000 veterans deployed to the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War who were exposed to combinations of nerve agents, pesticides and other toxic chemicals that may have triggered the symptoms.
The disorders share commonalities, such as extreme physical and mental fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, joint pain, exhaustion after exercise, headaches and flu-like symptoms.
Some sufferers have been left so weak that they lose their job or become bed or wheelchair-bound. But with the cause unclear, skepticism has remained as to whether it is a physical illness or merely psychological.
The study conducted by Georgetown University Medical Center provides significant insights into brain chemistry of these disorders that can now be investigated.
Spinal taps before exercise showed miRNA levels were the same in all participants suffering from chronic fatigue, Gulf War Illness and a control group.
But chronic fatigue syndrome subjects who exercised had reduced levels of 12 different miRNAs, compared to those who did not exercise.
The tests also showed that sufferers of CFS and GWI experienced changes in miRNA levels 24 hours after riding a stationary bike for 25 minutes.
One GWI group developed jumps in heart rate when standing up that lasted for two to three days after exercise. Scans also revealed they had smaller brain stems in regions that control heart rate and did not activate their brains when doing a cognitive task.
Senior investigator Dr James Baraniuk said: ‘This news will be well received by patients who suffer from these disorders who are misdiagnosed and instead may be treated for depression or other mental disorders.’
Chronic fatigue syndrome was thought to be psychological, often called ‘yuppie flu’ until a 2015 review of 9,000 articles over 64 years of research pointed to biological causes.
And though the exact causes of the disorders are unknown, Professor Baraniuk said miRNA levels in these disorders were different from the ones that are altered in depression, fibromyalgia, and Alzheimer’s disease, further suggesting chronic fatigue syndrome and Gulf War Illness are distinct diseases.
By Kayla Brantley