Archive for January, 2018

NEID Disease? Study Suggests Neuro, Endocrine and Immune Systems Work Together to Produce ME/CFS

Bruun Wyller continues to surprise. When last heard from this erstwhile cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) proponent asserted that more research into Epstein-Barr virus in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) was needed. Now he’s looking at the interaction between the immune and endocrine systems.

The Evolution of a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Researcher? CBT Proponent Calls for More Herpesvirus Research

Transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) in adolescent chronic fatigue syndrome Vegard Bruun Wyller1,2*, Chinh Bkrong Nguyen1, Judith Anita Ludviksen3,4 and Tom Eirik Mollnes. J Transl Med (2017) 15:245

Wyller begins his new study reporting that systemic inflammation is probably present and B-cell functioning is impaired (if modestly) in ME/CFS, but that the picture regarding cytokines is muddier. A meta-analysis of 38 ME/CFS cytokine studies examining 77 cytokines found only one standout – a cytokine called TGF-B. It was consistently elevated in 2/3rds of the studies.

cytokines chronic fatigue syndrome

Only one cytokine has more or less consistently shown up elevated in ME/CFS studies – TGF-B

Given its unusual and consistent appearance in cytokine study results, why TGF-B has gotten so little attention in ME/CFS is unclear. The fact that it’s kind of a weird cytokine probably doesn’t help. Secreted by macrophages and some other immune cells, TGF-B can function as both an anti and pro-inflammatory cytokine depending on the situation it’s in.

It’s three forms are involved in a multitude of regulatory processes involving inflammation and immunity.  It does more than participate in the immune system; TGF-B also affects or is affected by the two stress response systems in our bodies – the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system. All that makes TGF-B a complex character indeed.

Take our two stress response systems. During stressful situations increased TGF-B levels appear to be associated with increased levels of cortisol – the main stress hormone of the HPA axis.  An ME/CFS study examining the gene expression of immune cells found an abnormally high expression of genes that interact with the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system. That suggested that a significant immune-hormone component is present. Indeed, ME/CFS has long been characterized as a neuroendocrineimmune (NEID) – a disease that effects all three systems.

In this study Wyller, a Norwegian researcher, again used his own broad definition of ME/CFS to find patients, but this time he did post hoc analyses using the Fukuda and Canadian Consensus criteria to determine if different definitions of ME/CFS made a difference – they didn’t). As always, Wyller studied adolescents – a lot of them (n=120) and 68 controls to produce a very nice sized study. The data analysis took a long time; the data itself was collected from 2010-2012.

TGF-B actually comes in three forms ((TGF‑β1, TGF‑β2 and TGF‑β3). For the first time ever in ME/CFS Wyller tested for all three forms of TGF-B, as well as norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol (urine) and c-reactive protein (serum).   He also assessed heart rate variability, and in 29 patients examined their whole blood gene expression.  Questionnaires assessing fatigue, inflammatory symptoms, post-exertional malaise, sleep, mood and anxiety were also given.


Wyller expected TGF-B levels to be higher in his adolescent ME/CFS patients, but to his surprise even using the CCC and Fukuda criterias, they were not. Nor was TGF-B associated with any clinical markers such as fatigue, PEM, sleep problems, etc.


Wyller suggests an unusual neuroimmune connection involving TGF-beta and stress hormones such as cortisol (pictured) may be present

The study was looking like a bust until Wyller dug a little deeper. It turned out that TGF-B levels were associated with increased levels of the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine in the ME/CFS patients but not in the healthy controls.

An unusual immune-endocrine interaction was occurring in ME/CFS patients that was not found in the healthy controls. For some reason, TGF-B  levels rose in conjuction with stress hormones in the ME/CFS patients but not in the healthy controls.  All three TGF-B isoform displayed this association.

Plus that association also correlated with symptom severity. Wyller found that the TGF-B-cortisol-autonomic nervous system correlation was strongest in the most fatigued ME/CFS patients.  Less fatigued ME/CFS patients, on the other hand, had much less of this association.

Once again, context appeared to be king in the ME/CFS patients. The levels of TGF-B didn’t matter but the network they were embedded in did. A similar scenario showed up in the huge cytokine study conducted by Dr. Montoya and Mark Davis of Stanford. That study, like Wyller’s, didn’t find high levels of cytokines, but it did find that even normal cytokine levels affected symptoms. That suggested some sort of immune hypersensitivity, perhaps associated with some unusual network functioning, was present.

Now Wyller apparently finds an immune and autonomic nervous sensitivity to TGF-B. It’s not the cytokine levels themselves but the effect they have on stress hormones.  Indeed, Wyller suggested that the primary disease mechanism in ME/CFS is not altered immune production but altered immune control. Somehow the immune system is affecting other systems in unusual ways.

That’s an intriguing idea given what we’ll shortly see from Dr. Klimas, whose intense testing during exercise suggests that exercise induced immune activity trips off autonomic nervous system problems in ME/CFS. Gordon Broderick’s network studies suggest that cytokine levels don’t need to be high to have untoward effects on ME/CFS patients – they simply have to be embedded in an unusual immune network.

Wyller - neuro-endocrine-immune disease

Wyller believes a complex neuro-endocrine-immune interaction may be contributing to the fatigue and possibly the EBV issues in ME/CFS.

Dr. Klimas will be trying in a series of small studies to move those systems back to normal this year. (More on that later.)

Wyller’s findings suggest that his “sustained arousal” hypothesis may be correct and that the “sustained arousal” he believes is present in ME/CFS is being triggered by the immune system. His small gene expression study possibly bares this out. Wyller warned about reading too much into the gene expression analysis because of the small sample size (n=29). The analysis found, though, that the TGF-B3 isoform was negatively associated with reduced expression of two B-cell genes (TNFRSF13C and CXCR5).

Wyller suggested that TGF-B3 may be altering the effect that cortisol – the master immune regulator – has on B-cell genes in ME/CFS.  If TGF-B and cortisol combine to smack B-cell genes in ME/CFS, Wyller suggests that could translate into problems reining in Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – a common trigger in ME/CFS.  Wyller’s earlier gene expression study, in fact, suggested that B-cell problems could be the key to the EBV problems seen in ME/CFS. Now Wyller suggests that these B-cell problems could result from a complex interaction between TGF-B and cortisol.

Wyller’s going to check out that interaction in a study which will determine how effectively the B-cells in ME/CFS patients respond to EBV in the presence of neuroendocrine hormones. If cortisol or other neuroendocrine hormones impair the ability of B-cells to whack EBV in ME/CFS, Wyller may have uncovered one reason why mononucleosis is such a common trigger for ME/CFS.

Mold Connection?

Wyller’s focus on the research literature apparently precluded him from exploring another TGF-B angle. Mold has become a hot if little studied topic in ME/CFS. For over a decade, mold doctor Ritchie Shoemaker has asserted that elevated TGF-B levels play a major role in mold related illnesses.  Instead of B-cells, though, Shoemaker ties TGF-B issues to T cell problems and reduced blood flow in the capillaries, which translate into reduced oxygen uptake and problems with producing energy in the mitochondria – a key theme in ME/CFS.

Shoemaker, interestingly, asserts those blood flow and immune problems mirror what is happening in sepsis. In fact, Shoemaker believes that the chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS) he sees in his patients is a chronic form of sepsis. Over ten years ago ME/CFS specialist Dr. David Bell proposed a chronic form of sepsis exists in ME/CFS as well.

Could Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Be a Chronic Form of Sepsis?


Could Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Be a Chronic Form of Sepsis?

“In this monograph I would like to explore the concept of neuro-immune fatigue as a metabolic illness resulting from a series of events beginning with an infection, toxic exposure or neurologic injury.” Dr. David Bell, 2007

This is one of a series of blogs highlighting hypotheses mostly written by doctors or other professionals with ME/CFS, or in this case, doctors who have cared for them. The hypothesis examined in this case: Dr. Bell’s idea, produced in his monograph, “Cellular Hypoxia and Neuro-immune Fatigue”, that chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) could be a kind of “slow sepsis”.

Bell’s “Cellular Hypoxia” book was published in 2007, long before he was probably acquainted with Dr. Naviaux’s and others’ work and before the recent explosion of interest in cellular energy production in ME/CFS. Naviaux and others would probably smile, though, at Bell’s prediction that with ME/CFS and other diseases, “we may be witnessing the emergence of the next era of medicine: the diagnosis and treatment of cellular metabolic diseases”.

Sepsis is a life-threatening response to infection or trauma that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. In some ways, sepsis sounds similar to autoimmunity. For reasons the medical profession does not understand, sepsis begins when the immune system resets itself, stops fighting pathogens, and turns on the body.

The results are often devastating. The near complete body breakdown that results makes sepsis the most expensive disease hospitals treat.  Forty percent of patients with severe sepsis do not survive.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) – A Mild but Chronic State of Septic Shock?

ME/CFS is obviously not sepsis, but it does share some interesting characteristics.  With his “cellular hypoxia” monograph published in 2007, Dr. David Bell suggested that people with ME/CFS may exist in a “mild, but chronic state of septic shock”. Bell came to this conclusion after finding that sepsis and ME/CFS produces what he believed is a similar kind of oxygen dysfunction. In sepsis and in ME/CFS, Dr. Bell notes that oxygen is actually abundant: it’s abundant in the air, the lungs and the blood of ME/CFS patients, but it’s just not getting taken up by the tissues.

Bell reports that in septic shock, the following events occur (note the last one):

  • a serious infection occurs which –
  • results in the production of cytokines which –
  • increases nitric oxide levels which then –
  • interfere with the production of cellular energy.

Bell noted that when nitric oxide blocks the flow of oxygen in severe septic shock, a patient can still die despite doctors giving him/her as much blood and oxygen as they need.

Bell suggests a similar process to sepsis occurs more gradually in ME/CFS. First, an initiating infection or toxic exposure triggers the immune system to produce pro-inflammatory cytokines and nitric oxide (NO). From there, NO increases peroxynitrite and superoxide (Martin Pall’s hypothesis), which causes oxidative stress and interferes with mitochondrial function.

Ultimately, the cell becomes hypoxic (oxygen-starved), and neuropathies and autoimmune and other problems develop.

The idea that impaired oxygen intake might be limiting energy production has gained some currency since Bell wrote his monograph.  Vermoulen’s exercise studies suggest that impaired oxygen intake, not mitochondrial problems, is the key issue in energy generation. The early stages of Ron Davis’s collaboration with an San Jose State University bio-engineer suggest that the red blood cells may have difficulty getting to the tissues. Other researchers have found autoantibodies to receptors that open and close the blood vessels in a subset of ME/CFS patients.

Last year, Chris Armstrong in, The “Starvation” Disease? Metabolomics Meets Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Down Under“, took the sepsis/ME/CFS notion one step further when he noted that many of the metabolomic anomalies (reduced amino acids, reduced lipids and increased glucose levels) found in ME/CFS are also found in sepsis and starvation.

Remarking that during sepsis, immune cells rely entirely on glycolysis to proliferate, Armstrong speculated, much as Bell did years earlier, that an infection or autoimmune process might have triggered a sepsis-like condition which lead to a state of chronic metabolic starvation.

A last tie to sepsis is an incidental one.  Ron Davis and Ron Tompkins of the Open Medicine Foundation worked on sepsis together. Based on his work there, Davis has said ME/CFS could be a kind of atypical sepsis.

Two Vascular Diseases?

blood vessels

Blood vessel damage could play a central role in both sepsis and ME/CFS

Bell noted that a vasculopathy – inflammation of the blood vessels – was the first symptom (reddened cheeks) he noticed in ME/CFS.  (That suggested to him that a parvovirus may have swept through his area.)

Cardiovascular issues could be central in both diseases. Perhaps the most interesting possible intersection between sepsis and ME/CFS occurs in the blood vessels – specifically the small blood vessels.

Recently an NIH Panel redefined sepsis as: “severe endothelial (blood vessel) dysfunction syndrome in response to intravascular and extravascular infections causing reversible or irreversible injury to the microcirculation responsible for multiple organ failure”; i.e. at its heart, sepsis is a small blood vessel disease caused by a pathogen attack – which is complicated by the immune storms that follow.

Sepsis has also been called a “malignant intravascular inflammation” characterized by excessive coagulation which blocks blood flows to the small blood vessels, reducing blood volume and lowering blood pressure.

Indeed, as Bell points out several times in his monograph, vascular issues show up again and again in ME/CFS, POTS, orthostatic intolerance and similar, related diseases.

Blood Pressure

Altered blood pressure is another sign of cardiovascular issues in both diseases. A sudden drop in blood pressure associated with an infection is an indication that sepsis has begun.

Blood pressure regulation problems are found in ME/CFS but anecdotal reports suggest that declines in blood pressure may be common as well.  Bell writes that most, but not all, people with ME/CFS have low blood pressure – something that the medical profession has little interest in – unless you’re in the ICU.  It’s ironic, Bell notes, that an ME/CFS patient with a blood pressure 75/40 will get little notice but put someone with that blood pressure in an intensive care unit and the sirens will go off.

Blood Volume

Low blood volume is common in sepsis and great efforts are made to increase it. Low blood volume, of course, is very common in ME/CFS as well. Sometimes blood volume is so low in ME/CFS as to stagger the mind, yet it’s received little attention.

Increasing blood volume can, of course, be helpful in ME/CFS, but is not as helpful as one would think, given the low blood volumes found. (Could microcirculatory problems be to blame?)

Blood Flows

In sepsis, blood flows in the microcirculation become so low as to damage the organs. That doesn’t appear to happen in ME/CFS, but even back in 2007, Bell was able to point out studies showing reduced blood flows to the brain and muscles was present.

Pathogen Damage

Sepsis was long thought to result from an overwhelming immune response to an infection but that’s no longer thought to be true. In 2010, however, that changed. The Working Group on Blood Systems Response to Sepsis, convened by the NIH’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), concluded that a cytokine cascade was not, as had been previously believed, the main culprit. The real issue in sepsis, they asserted, is damage to the blood vessels caused by an uncontrolled infection.

The damage is then exacerbated by many inflammatory factors (including Dr. Bell’s nitric oxide metabolites).  A period of reduced immune activation or “immuno-paralysis” (caused by an overactive anti-inflammatory response/immune exhaustion) that follows then sets the stage for the reactivation of latent viruses such as EBV, HSV-1 and others which amplify the damage.

The immune response is still recognized to be important, particularly in the later stages of the disease, but the infections themselves and the damage they do mayt be the key factor.

That’s an intriguing finding given that the biggest factor in determining who gets ME/CFS and who doesn’t after an infection appears to be the severity of the initial infection. Could a severe infection kick off a low-grade, chronic type of sepsis in ME/CFS?

It’s possible that the difficulty NK cells – and probably T-cells – have in killing off pathogens in ME/CFS might just give those pathogens enough time to damage the blood vessels.  Or, perhaps in other cases, an autoimmune process is sparked which does the same. (An autoimmune process appears to occur in some types of POTS).

Post-Sepsis Syndrome (PSS)

Interestingly, sepsis appears to be another potential trigger for chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Post-sepsis syndrome (PSS) – a condition occurring in about 50% of sepsis survivors – indicates that surviving sepsis – perhaps like surviving the infection, injury or whatever that appears to trigger the onset of ME/CFS – is often not nearly the end of the story.

Extreme fatigue, problems with cognition, muscle and joint pains, insomnia and other sleep problems, that can last months or even years are common outcomes of sepsis.  In fact, a sepsis trust has produced a support document specifically for post-sepsis patients experiencing “chronic fatigue“.

The medical profession has been content thus far to simply to document the extent of PSS – with little attempt to understand or treat it.  The causes of the fatigue and chronic pain in PSS are completely unknown. This is despite the fact that several studies have made clear that PSS is a significant and enduring problem: statistics suggest that about 250,000 people a year come down with PSS.

The disease is clearly pathophysiological, but the only help The Sepsis Alliance could provide for the many chronically ill survivors was to get emotional and psychological support (counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy or neuropsychiatric assessment) or physical therapies.


Sepsis is also confusing to treat. The first line of defense is a hearty dose of antivirals, fluid support, etc.  From there it gets trickier.  People with sepsis may have a pro-inflammatory phase followed by immune suppression (or both may be occurring at the same time).  (Could ME/CFS be a kind of drawn-out sepsis with a longer pro-inflammatory phase followed by immune exhaustion?)

Researchers and doctors focused on reducing pro-inflammatory responses, but drug trials targeting the pro-inflammatory response have been ineffective.  Now, researchers are targeting immune checkpoints in hopes of unleashing the power of the innate immune system.

Check out a more technical take on sepsis and ME/CFS which brings Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS) into the equation: IS SIRS, CARS, MARS – AND NOW PICS – CAUSING THE “CHAOS” IN ME/CFS?


dr. david bell

Dr. David Bell

Chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is not sepsis but the two diseases do share some intriguing characteristics. Both sepsis and ME/CFS often start with an infection; oxygen delivery to the tissues appears to be a problem; blood pressure, blood volume and blood flows are affected, and sepsis often results in a syndrome that symptomatically looks very much like ME/CFS.

As Roberts points out what’s happening in the very, very complex disease known as sepsis is still unclear. Whether or not the new drugs being developed for sepsis will play a role in ME/CFS is, of course, unknown as well. Drugs being developed to turn off the anti-inflammatory response are intriguing given the state of “immune exhaustion” that some studies have found in ME/CFS.  If ME/CFS does turn out to be a kind of “slow sepsis” it will be a good idea to keep an eye on the developments there.

Stevens, in fact, suggests that the ME/CFS and sepsis communities stay in close touch.

It seems logical that the ME/CFS community should begin to share knowledge and resource with the sepsis organizations such as International Sepsis Forum (ISF), Global Sepsis Alliance and Sepsis Trust and Post Sepsis Syndrome patients. The curative challenges ahead are monumental, involving complex pathways which have yet to be researched, and will no doubt result in individualized treatments.