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Thousands Of Studies Begin To Paint New Picture Of Chronic Fatigue

Tuesday 10 September 2019


From US radio station PBS Newshour on WCAI:


Artwork by Jem Yoshioka
An artist's rendering of what
chronic fatigue syndrome feels like.
(Credit: Jem Yoshioka/Wikimedia Commons/

Thousands of Studies Begin to Paint New Picture of Chronic Fatigue

By Heather Goldstone & Elsa Partan
Program: Living Lab Radio on WCAI
September 10, 2019
© 2019 WCAI.

Chronic fatigue syndrome was first described in the early 1980s, and it affects an estimated two and a half million Americans. For many years, doctors’ tests couldn’t find an explanation for patients’ symptoms, so they were dismissed as “nothing wrong.” But a growing body of research reveals plenty of things going wrong in chronic fatigue syndrome.

“Over the last 35 years, there have been over 9,000 scientific publications that compare people with the illness to healthy people of the same age and sex,” explained Anthony Komaroff, a professor at Harvard Medical School and senior physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. “And they find a whole variety of abnormalities.”

Many of those abnormalities involve the brain. There are physical differences in the brain, as well as differences in hormone levels and electrical activity. Some of those brain changes may, in turn, explain differences elsewhere in the body, such as blood pressure or digestion.

Not surprisingly, energy metabolism is also affected in people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Notably, while exercise typically makes energy metabolism more efficient, the opposite is true for people with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Another finding is that the immune system appears to be chronically activated.

“It's as if the immune system were going to war against something, but what that something is hasn't been determined. And it might, in fact, be different from one person to the next,” Komaroff described. “Parts of the immune system appear to be exhausted because they've been chronically activated for so many months and years.”

These differences can help explain symptoms and can provide targets for treatments to alleviate those symptoms. But to develop a treatment – or cure – that actually fixes the underlying problems that lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, researchers need to piece together a chain of cause and effect.


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