New research from King’s College London finds that an exaggerated immune response can trigger long-lasting fatigue, potentially explaining how chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) begins. The study is the most in-depth biological investigation yet into the role of the immune system in lasting symptoms of fatigue. CFS, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is a long-term illness which is characterized by extreme tiredness. The underlying biology of CFS has remained a mystery, hampering the search for treatments. There is some evidence that the immune system plays a role in triggering CFS and many patients report their illness starting with a challenge to the immune system such as a viral illness. By the time patients are diagnosed, it is too late to catch CFS in its earliest stages, and it is impossible to assess the biology of patients before the illness develops. To get around this problem, researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) used a model for CFS based on a treatment for hepatitis C called interferon-alpha. Interferon-alpha activates the immune system in the same way as a powerful infection. A lot of patients develop acute fatigue during treatment with interferon-alpha and a minority go on to have a CFS-like illness, where fatigue lasts for more than six months after the treatment ends. The researchers measured fatigue and immune system markers in 55 patients before, during, and after treatment with interferon-alpha, tracking which people developed the persistent CFS-like illness. The team found differences in the immune systems of 18 patients who developed lasting fatigue compared to those who recovered as normal.
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