The findings, if confirmed, could lead to new ways to diagnose and treat the troublesome condition that affects more than a million Americans, said the study conducted by Stanford University researchers in the peer-reviewed journal Radiology.
“Using a trio of sophisticated imaging methodologies, we found that CFS patients' brains diverge from those of healthy subjects in at least three distinct ways,” said lead author Michael Zeineh, assistant professor of radiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Researchers performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on 15 CFS patients and 14 age- and gender-matched controls.
They found CFS patients had slightly less white matter in the brain, as well as abnormalities in a nerve tract within the brain's right hemisphere.
For CFS patients, “the differences correlated with their fatigue ― the more abnormal the tract, the worse the fatigue,” Zeineh said.
The imaging study also found abnormalities among CFS patients in two areas that connect the right arcuate fasciculus. Each connection point, known as a cortex, was thicker in CFS patients, the researchers said.
Until now, chronic fatigue syndrome has been difficult to diagnose, with its characteristic “brain fog” enduring more than six months and coinciding with a host of other symptoms.
“CFS is one of the greatest scientific and medical challenges of our time,” said the study's senior author, Jose Montoya, professor of infectious diseases and geographic medicine at Stanford.
“Its symptoms often include not only overwhelming fatigue, but also joint and muscle pain, incapacitating headaches, food intolerance, sore throat, enlargement of the lymph nodes, gastrointestinal problems, abnormal blood-pressure and heart-rate events, and hypersensitivity to light, noise or other sensations.”
Researchers said the findings must be confirmed in future studies but that these structural differences could point to the way toward a better understanding of what causes the disease and how to stop it.
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