Norwegian researchers recently reported discovering the immune mechanism that may underlie chronic fatigue syndrome. This often obscure condition is hard to detect and hard to diagnose. Until relatively recently it was widely believed to be purely psychosomatic, with no physical cause or easily observable symptoms. Something such as an immune response that can be seen and tested for is an important breakthrough. The idea was initially suggested in 1984 when a cluster of cases in Nevada brought the illness to the attention of the medical community, but this is the first study providing tangible evidence for the hypothesis.
The scientists had noticed that a medication used to treat autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis successfully treated CFS, which is notoriously difficult to treat even when it is recognized. Normally the illness is managed with cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants, with other medication playing only a minor role. The Norwegians decided to take a closer look at what the medication was actually doing, and found that it reduced the amount and activity of a type of immune cell called B-cells.
B-cells are one of the immune systems two major components. Produced in bone marrow in humans, B-cells’ role is to learn what disease-causing agents look like and go out to neutralize them. The understanding of how B-cells work in the immune system has expanded in recent years; the T-cells that detect invaders were previously believed to run the immune system and be largely responsible for autoimmune disease, but B-cells seem in more recent studies to play a larger role in both healthy and malfunctioning immune response. In particular, the degree to which B-cell response is involved in rheumatoid arthritis was found to have been underestimated.
Now B-cells are believed to also be responsible for chronic fatigue syndrome. Also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, CFS is characterized not only by the tiredness resting doesn’t alleviate that gives the condition its name, but also by inflammation in parts of the brain. If it is an autoimmune disease, the inflammation is likely a result of the immune response.