Chronic fatigue syndrome is an actual biological illness, reveals a new study, and the latest research declaration is generating controversy among some researchers who believe the condition is primarily psychological.
Also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), the chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is marked by sleeplessness, poor concentration, mental and physical fatigue, and pain within muscles and joints. Around 17 million people around the globe suffer from CFS, and there is no known cure.
Columbia University researchers announced the discovery of markers in the immune systems of people suffering from CFS. These changes indicate stages of disease, the study notes.
Researchers studied blood plasma samples from 298 CFS sufferers and 348 control subjects, searching for 51 immune biomarkers.
Cytokines, small proteins in the immune system, were found to be higher in patients suffering from CFS than in long-term patients, or those without the condition. Concentrations of interferon gamma, a form of cytokine often associated with fatigue following viral infections, were found to be correlated to CFS, researchers noted. The common Epstein-Barr virus, responsible for mononucleosis, is one of the microorganisms that can trigger the presence of interferon gamma.
"We now have evidence confirming what millions of people with this disease already know -- that ME/CFS isn't psychological," Mady Hornig of Columbia University said.
If the findings are confirmed by other researchers, the presence of these chemical markers could help speed diagnosis and develop new treatments for the condition.
Many people experiencing the condition claim symptoms started after they suffered viral infections. However, a 2010 study revealing links to the Xmrv virus were later disproven, and the results were found to be caused by contaminated samples.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychological process of introducing patients to behaviors, has seen some success in a percentage of patients. For many sufferers, though, these reports make the condition out to be a mental, rather than a physical, ailment.
Another cytokine known as interleukin-1 was also found to be higher in short-term patients than others in the sample group. Monoclonal antibodies have already been developed that can reduce levels of that protein.
Future research will examine subjects over the course of a year, studying how levels of cytokines and other markers change over time. Such a study will assist researchers in determining how concentrations of cytokines alter with progression of symptoms, and provide a more reliable means of testing for a connection between CFS and the proteins.
Research into the possible role of cytokines in the development and progress of CFS was published in the journal Science Advances.