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The Epstein-Barr Virus – Could it be Causing Neuroinflammation in ME/CFS?

EBV has been a virus of interest since almost day one in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). In fact, at one point, EBV was such a hot topic that ME/CFS was called for a time “chronic Epstein-Barr virus” disease.

Virion EBV

Epstein-Barr virus virions (circular centers). Virions are the form of the virus which infects other cells. EBV dUTPase is released when the process of creating virions is aborted…

While studies have generally failed to find evidence of EBV reactivation, EBV has never fallen out of the picture with ME/CFS and for good reason. For one, it’s entirely possible that researchers were looking in the wrong place to determine if EBV is an issue in this disease.  For another, EBV infection in adolescence or later and the infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever) it produces, is a common trigger in ME/CFS, and is a proven risk factor for multiple sclerosis.

Besides ME/CFS, researchers are continuing to assess the role EBV may play in many serious illnesses including multiple sclerosis (MS), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Guillain-Barre Syndrome, several cancers,  rheumatoid arthritis (RA), juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, schizophrenia, and others.

Neuroinflammation, of course, is a hot, hot (pun intended) topic in both ME/CFS and fibromyalgia. Recent studies suggest neuroinflammation is present in both diseases and major studies are underway to validate that finding.

Nobody until now, though has attempted to complete the circle, and bring that “original gangster” in ME/CFS – Epstein Barr Virus – and the new guy in town – neuroinflammation – together.  Could EBV be causing or contributing to the neuroinflammation present in the disease?

Some History

Over 10 years of work by an Ohio State University team lead by Maria Ariza and Marshall Williams has been turning the EBV question in ME/CFS on its head. High levels of EBV, they believe, are not the problem in ME/CFS at all. In fact, their studies suggest that EBV may be at its most dangerous in ME/CFS not when it reactivates – but when it fails to reactivate properly.

dTUPase model

The Ohio State University dUTPase continuing NIH grant is in its 9th year.

By the time the impaired immune systems of people with ME/CFS have started knocking down EBV’s attempt at reactivation, the bug has already produced a potentially pathogenic protein called dUTPase. The Ohio State University researchers believe this protein may be wreaking havoc in a large subset of people with ME/CFS.

With the NIH supporting them every step of the way – their continuing grant on dUTPase is now in its 9th year – the evidence that this protein is contributing to ME/CFS (and other diseases) has continued to build.

In 2012, the group found evidence that the immune systems of people in a large subset of ME/CFS patients were indeed battling this protein. Just a year later they showed that even when viral loads of EBV were low, dUTPase could still be triggering a significant pro-inflammatory response. That finding suggested that failed prior attempts to link EBV reactivation to ME/CFS were barking up the wrong tree.

Two years later, they demonstrated that dUTPase was able to make its way into exosomes (now a major topic of interest in ME/CFS), cross the blood-brain barrier, produce major immune effects, and perhaps even promote further EBV infections.

Then a 2017 study added another herpesvirus long suspected in ME/CFS – HHV-6 – to the mix. That study found antibodies to dUTPases produced by both EBV and HHV-6 in almost fifty percent of the ME/CFS patients.  That suggested that the two herpesviruses might even be reactivating each other – a feature found in some very immune suppressed states including organ transplant patients and drug induced hypersensitivity syndrome.

Then again, really significant immune suppression in ME/CFS may not be a surprise. Up to 75% of ME/CFS patients were found to have low numbers of the B-cells designed to keep EBV in check in a recent study.

If the immune system wasn’t having enough trouble, in 2017 the first evidence of an autoimmune process involving EBV dUTPase was found in ME/CFS. Autoantibodies to the human dUTPases (humans produce a dUTPase as well) were found in ME/CFS – at much higher levels than in healthy controls (39% vs. 5%). That suggested that the immune response to EBV and HHV-6 dUTPase may have gone awry in some people with ME/CFS. Their bodies were now attacking their own human dUTPase.

The 2019 Study

In the present study we provide further evidence…. (that) dUTPase protein…could contribute to the development of a neuroinflammatory microenvironment in the brain(s) (of a subset of ME/CFS patients.)  The authors

Epstein-Barr Virus dUTPase Induces Neuroinflammatory Mediators: Implications for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Marshall V. Williams PhD; Brandon Cox ; William P. Lafuse PhD; and Maria Eugenia Ariza, PhD. Clinical Therapeutics March 2019

In 2019, the team took another step. In an earlier study they’d demonstrated that the EBV dUTPase protein could be causing or contributing to the symptoms present in ME/CFS. Since many of these symptoms can be produced by the brain, they next asked if the enzyme could be affecting the integrity of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and other aspects of neuroinflammation.

There’s a pretty good reason to believe this might be the case. EBV, after all, has been associated with some pretty nasty neurological diseases. The virus loves to hang out in nerve cells and astrocytes, is a risk factor for M.S. and has, in fact, been found scattered throughout the astrocytes and microglial cells in MS patients’ brains.

The Ohio State University researchers plopped the dUTPase protein into a variety of cells and then determined how it affected the expression of genes that play an important role in maintaining the blood brain barrier (BBB) and the functioning of various brain cells (cerebral microvascular endothelial cells, astrocytes, microglia cells).

The big bug’s dUTPase protein turned out to be quite adept at tweaking genes and proteins associated with the BBB and neuroinflammation. It turned on 12 of 15 genes and 32 of the 100 proteins examined in vitro (in the lab) and 34 of the 84 genes examined in mice.

The fact that these genes play a role in BBB integrity/function, fatigue, pain synapses and their functioning as well as tryptophan, dopamine, and serotonin metabolism suggested that this enzyme, in or out of the brain, could conceivably cause widespread problems.

How the Blood-Brain Barrier Works

 

 

All in all, the protein appeared to be doing its best to find a way to get EBV into the brain. That’s perhaps not a surprise given how much EBV loves to hang out in neurons. As EBV dUTPase was down regulating the expression of genes dedicated to producing a tight BBB it was “strongly” inducing the expression of two cytokines (IL-6 and IL-1β) known to disrupt The BBB.

If EBV dUTPase gets inside the brain, it seems almost guaranteed to cause neuroinflammation.  Studies indicate it can trigger microglial cells and astrocytes (star-shaped immune cells in the brain) to produce potent pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-6, IL-1β and TNF-α). It also prompts astrocytes to produce a substance (PTGS2/COX-2) associated with neuroninflammatory toxicity. Plus it’s able to alter the expression of genes associated with pain (GPR8451 and GCH152) and fatigue (TBC1D153) to boot.

In mice, it altered the expression of genes associated with cognition (synaptic plasticity, learning and memory).  One of the more intriguing findings, given the possible disruption of the kynurenine pathway in ME/CFS, was the protein’s potential to increase synthesis of a potent neurotoxin called quinolinic acid. Genes associated with the metabolism of two of the major neurotransmitters in the brain, dopamine, and serotonin, were also affected.

EBV dUTPase neuroinflammation

If EBV dUTPase has indeed been able to get into ME/CFS patient’s brains it seems almost guaranteed to cause neuroinflammation

All in all, EBV dUTPase is not a protein anyone wants hanging out in their head. It is, however, a protein that could potentially produce a lot of the problems found in ME/CFS.  This study demonstrated that the protein appears to have the capability to make its way to ME/CFS patient’s brains. Determining if it has will take further investigations, however.

It should be noted that the protein and its antibodies (or the autoantibodies to the human dUTPase) are not found in everyone with ME/CFS but the potential subset – ranging from 30% to 60% of those tested so far, is pretty darn large.

Plus, the virus is heavily implicated in the stress response. If you feel like your nervous system is over-reacting to, well, anything (or everything), EBV and this protein could be a factor. Of all the viruses, EBV and the herpesviruses love most to come out and play when one’s system is stressed.

In fact, Ron Glaser, one of the initiators of the EBV dUTPase research effort, demonstrated back in 1991 that EBV thrives in situations of psychological stress. Given the enormous stress people with ME/CFS are under, and the affects the illness has on both axes of the stress response, it makes sense that the virus might be continually trying to reactivate – and spilling it’s toxic protein into the bloodstreams of some people with this disease.

A Good-bye to a Pioneer

Ron Glaser

Glaser was shocked he couldn’t get his ME/CFS grant applications funded at the NIH

Ron Glaser was something of a legend in his own time. With his doctorate in pathology, his EBV citations alone total over 100. All told he published over 300 papers. Glaser co-founded Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, which under his leadership brought in over 140 million in grant money over 20 years. At one point he was one of the world’s most cited authors.

His memorials mention his impact on the psychoneuroimmunological (PNI) field, his enthusiasm, (and the red and white Corvette he loved). What they don’t mention is that this leader also devoted time to a much neglected field called chronic fatigue syndrome. Glaser, in fact, took the time out of his busy schedule to sit on the now disbanded federal advisory committee for ME/CFS (CFSAC).

I vividly remember talking to him. He was not a man to mince words. An accomplished researcher with a long history of grant success, Glaser was first shocked, and then very angry at the rejections piling up for his ME/CFS grant applications. He just couldn’t understand it. Never in his decades of work had he experienced such a thing.

Stating, ironically, he couldn’t stand the stress (he did look like he was about to burst a blood vessel), he eventually moved on, but not before making his experiences perfectly clear to the federal advisory committee and everyone around him.

Glaser was not happy at not being able to work more in ME/CFS, but the work he did did not go for naught. Glaser first published on EBV dUTPase in 1985 and on EBV and ME/CFS in 1988 and his work lives on in Ariza and William’s studies on ME/CFS today. Check out a memorium to Ron here. 

Marshall Williams – On the Continuing Hunt for EBV dUTPase in ME/CFS

What about the connection between this protein and the presence of infectious mononucleosis/glandular fever in ME/CFS? Do we have any idea if the enzyme is more likely to be found in people who’s disease was triggered by IM or who had an acute, flu-like onset?

That is an excellent question. We are in the process of trying to obtain longitudinal serum samples from an IM cohort who developed CFS as well as age matched patients who had IM but never developed CFS. Hopefully, that may address this question.

EBV dUTPase exosomes

When EBV (lytic) replication is aborted it tosses EBV dUTPase into exosomes (circles with red marks) which, after binding to TLR receptors on immune cells, tells those cells to turn on proinflammatory and other genes (from Ariza, Williams and Glazer -https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069827)

This study demonstrated that this enzyme has the potential to disrupt the BBB and enter the brain – and as added bonus – perhaps helps get EBV into the brain. Is there any way to tell if this has actually happened in ME/CFS?

Not really at this point but maybe in the future. Screening CSF from ME/CFS patients for antibodies to the EBV-dUTPase or HHV-6 dUTPase might suggest potentially the presence of these viruses in the brain.

Exosome research is heating up in ME/CFS. Some anecdotal reports show that exosomes in the blood may be affecting energy metabolism and other functions. Could herpesvirus dUTPases be involved? Is there any more information on exosomes and EBV dUTPases?

We have not looked at energy metabolism but there are some reports in the literature that some herpesviruses including EBV and HHV-6 alter mitochondrial function. There is information concerning EBV products in exosomes but most of these have focused on proteins/microRNAs involved with latency.

What is next for your team? 

We are in the process of submitting a manuscript detailing a mechanism(s) by which the EBV-dUTPase and to a lesser extent the HHV-6 dUTPase alter germinal center function, which could contribute to autoimmunity in CFS patients. We will be continuing these studies as well as those regarding neuroinflammation. (B-cells manufacture autoantibodies in the germinal centers found in the lymph nodes and spleen)

MAIT Immune Cell Findings Unite U.S. and U.K. ME/CFS Researchers

The US and the UK are said to have a “special relationship”. That special relationship hasn’t generally extended to ME/CFS research, given a decidedly different focus on ME/CFS in the two countries – a strong focus on biological research in the US and more of a focus on CBT/GET in the UK.  That might be changing, though.

Derya Unutmaz at Jackson Labs and Jacqueline Cliff of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine | LSHTM appear to have both independently landed on the same immune cell in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Given the multitude of immune cells found in the body, that has the potential to be rather special.

UK ME/CFS Biobank

A large NIH funded UK Biobank enabled these researchers to produce one of the largest ME/CFS immune studies done.

The specialness doesn’t stop there. The samples tested by these two teams – all 300 of them – come from the UK ME/CFS Biobank – which since 2014 has received major funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US. (The Biobank has also received funding from The ME Association, Action for ME, and ME Research UK.) Plus, the NIH provided most of the funding for the Cliff project.

The UK ME/CFS Biobank is big. It contains serum, plasma, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), red blood cells/granulocyte pellet, whole blood, and RNA samples from over 500 ME/CFS and multiple sclerosis patients and healthy controls. Plus, it includes an extensive dataset of 700 clinical and socio-demographic variables.

The Cliff study focused on the immune system – a natural system to target given the infectious onset many experience and the symptoms common to all patients. An immune “hole” could give a pathogen time to do more damage, set off an autoimmune response, or alter immune functioning in some other way.

Immune studies in ME/CFS are not uncommon, but the Cliff team researchers (sounding very English at least to my ears) described their results as “discrepant” and inconclusive. Interesting research findings have not been reproduced in ME in part, they asserted, because of small study sizes, varied research methods, and sometimes a less than stellar quality of the studies.

This Biobank study is different, they believe. A large study with a well characterized patient group, they clearly believe its results will stand the test of time.

The Study

Front Immunol. 2019 Apr 16;10:796. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.00796. eCollection 2019. Cellular Immune Function in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Cliff JM1, King EC1, Lee JS1, Sepúlveda N1,2, Wolf AS1, Kingdon C3, Bowman E3, Dockrell HM1, Nacul L3, Lacerda E3, Riley EM1.

The Patients

The Cliff study examined the samples from over 400 patients and controls (251 ME/CFS (54 severely affected and 197 mild/moderate), 46 multiple sclerosis, 107 healthy controls.)

The patients met either the Canadian Consensus Criteria or the 1992 Fukuda Criteria (or both) and were mostly recruited via the UK National Health Service. The patients were determined to meet either criteria after their responses to a Symptoms Assessment form were fed into a computerized algorithm that maps their symptoms onto the different ME/CFS study case definitions.

Since the Fukuda definition does not require post-exertional malaise – the core symptom of ME/CFS –  it was surprising to see the group potentially accept patients who only met that definition. It wasn’t clear from the study what proportion of patients, if any, met only the Fukuda criteria, though. Severely ill patients were mostly home or bed bound. Their blood samples were taken during home visits.

People who had taken antiviral medications or drugs known to alter immune functioning, had a recent history of vaccination, had a history of other chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, uncontrolled diabetes, etc., had a severe mood disorder, or who had been pregnant or breastfeeding in the past 12 months were excluded.

One part of the study focused on natural killer (NK) cells – key players in the early, innate immune response. Given the NK findings in ME/CFS, the group’s decision to analyze NK cells was not a surprise, but they gave their analysis a twist. Because cytomegalovirus (CMV) infections have such profound effects on our NK cells (and the rest of our immune system), the relationship between CMV infections and NK cells was assessed to determine whether a past CMV infection could be responsible for the NK cell abnormalities seen in ME/CFS.

Results

The Next Big Thing in Immune Research? MAIT cells Pop Out Again

The big news from the Cliff study is the increased frequency of the CD8+ mucosal associated invariant T cells or MAIT cells.  The UK authors noted that an increased frequency of MAIT T-cells has not been published before, which is true, but Derya Unutmaz, leader of the NIH ME/CFS Research Center at the Jackson Labs, has been talking about them in ME/CFS for several years.

MAIT cells

MAIT cells form a bridge between the gut and the immune system. (From Dr. Oh’s NIH Conference presentation)

Unutmaz reported finding high levels of MAIT cells in ME/CFS patients.  Unutmaz’s findings suggest that the MAIT T-cells have been repeatedly activated in ME/CFS and that they evidence the same activated/burned out pattern he’s found in other T-cells.  He and Dr. Oh at Jackson Labs are trying to determine which stomach bacteria has turned them on and then find a way to eliminate or reduce it.

MAIT cells are known for the role they play protecting the lining of the gut against toxic bacteria. Their name – mucosal invariant T-cells – derives from the high levels of these cells gathered around the mucosal surfaces of the gut (e.g. the lining). In effect they are the gut’s innate immune cells – sentinels guarding the gut wall which can, in contrast to other T-cells, react immediately to invaders.

They’re different from other T-cells which get activated after being triggered by an antigen from a pathogen. Instead, they’re activated by fats and vitamin B2 metabolites produced by plants, bacteria (E. coliPseudomonas aeruginosaKlebsiella pneumoniaL. acidophilusS. aureus, and S. epidermidisC. albicansC. glabrata, and S. cerevisiae ) and fungi. Because cytokines produced by viral infections can activate them as well, the high degree of MAIT cell activation is not necessarily due to bacteria in the gut – but it’s the most likely scenario.

MAIT research only started popping up after 2010, when studies revealed these unusual cells were able to detect bacteria and fungi and respond with pro-inflammatory cytokines. Since then many studies have suggested that MAIT cells play an important role in infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and cancer. MAIT cells are not always pro-inflammatory, but increased levels, particularly of cytotoxic MAIT cells, are believed to be associated with pathogenic states.

In contrast to Unutmaz’s apparent (but unpublished) findings of high levels of MAIT cells in ME/CFS overall, this study found a high proportion of MAIT cells only in the severely ill ME/CFS patients. They noted that a small number of the severely ill patients were reported to have “exceedingly high” frequencies of these cells.

Most of the MAIT cells in the severely affected ME/CFS patients (as well as in the MS patients) were in their cytotoxic (killing) form.  They’d probably been activated by a bacterium in the gut and were apparently on the prowl, ready to pounce. While the increased proportion of MAIT cells only weakly discriminated the severe ME/CFS patients from the healthy controls, the high percentage of killer T-cells (cytotoxic T-cells) found was moderately discriminative.

Interestingly, the Cliff study authors pointed out that peripheral MAIT cell levels in healthy volunteers can increase 2-fold following exercise. Finding similarly high levels of MAIT cells in the severely ill patients suggested they were in a similar post-exercise state without having engaged in any exercise.

Slight Increase in ESR Surprises

Interestingly, symptoms associated with inflammation/infection were more common and more severe in the ME/CFS cohort than in the MS cohort (go figure!). Perhaps that’s not a surprise, since ME/CFS has been shown to impact functioning to a greater degree than MS.

The slight raise in erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) – an inflammatory marker – in mild/moderate cases of ME/CFS compared to the other groups (Including the severe ME/CFS group) was surprising, though, given that very low ESR’s are thought to be typical in this disease.

Laboratory studies. These tests can be used to exclude other diseases associated with fatigue. The most consistent laboratory abnormality in patients with CFS is an extremely low erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), which approaches zero. Typically, patients with CFS have an ESR of 0 to 3 mm/h. A normal ESR or one that is in the upper reference range suggests another diagnosis. https://www.consultant360.com/content/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-update-diagnosis-primary-care

Natural Killer Cells

As the Cliff study introduced a new factor into ME/CFS research (MAIT cells), it took a hatchet to the last big immune finding in ME/CFS – natural killer cells. The study found no significant differences in NK cell proportions, types, KIR receptors or activation markers before or after they stimulated them.

Some NK markers did stand out, but only in patients who had been exposed to CMV. The authors suggested a past CMV infection in some of the ME/CFS patients had likely caused the NK cell abnormalities in ME/CFS – not ME/CFS.

The Cliff study, however, used a different test of NK cell functioning than some groups have used in the past. The British group assessed both T and NK cell functioning by determining how the cells responded to stimulation; i.e., did they produce distinctive markers and/or start producing cytokines. The ME/CFS patients’ cells apparently whizzed through that test – they perked up and started producing cytokines, leaving the authors to report that no functional issues with these cells are present.

NK cell functioning

The Cliff study suggested that the NK cell findings in ME/CFS may be due to patients with past CMV infections. They did, not, however, use a NK cell functional test used by others in the past.

Dr. Klimas, however, uses a more direct functional NK cell assay which measures the number of target cells killed. Plus, instead of the PBMC’s used in the Cliff study, she uses whole blood – possibly a critical factor, given Ron Davis’ and Fluge’s findings that something in the plasma is affecting the cells. In fact the first hint of a blood-borne factor in ME/CFS showed up in NK cell studies.  That idea that something in the blood was impacting functioning first showed up when Dr. Klimas realized that a study which found no evidence of problems with NK cell functioning had not used whole blood in its tests.

The UK study authors noted that small study sizes have hampered immune results in this disease, but size was not an issue for the 2011 Klimas/Fletcher study (176 ME/CFS patients, 230 healthy controls) which found significant declines in NK cell functioning, and those declines were associated with increased fatigue levels. In an Australian study, Brenu also used a target cell killing test to show reductions in T-cell functioning. The UK study authors did not allude to other possible functional tests or the whole blood issue in their manuscript.

Exhausted T-cells?

The UK study authors did find a number of T-cell abnormalities: increased proportions of effector memory CD8+ T cells, decreased proportions of terminally differentiated effector TEMRA cells, and some minor changes elsewhere – whose effects are unclear. The UK authors suggested, though, they could be due to “ongoing antigenic stimulation” due to an unresolved infection or autoimmunity.

Either could presumably produce a state of “immune exhaustion” which some have hypothesized is present in ME/CFS.

Derya Unutmaz focused on key players in autoimmunity and inflammation called TH17 cells in his U.S. study. He wasn’t surprised to find high levels of TH17 cells – which are regulated by the gut –  but he was shocked to find low levels of the IL-17 cytokine they produce. That finding also suggested that the immune cells in ME/CFS might be in a state of exhaustion.

The Cliff study’s IgG antibody tests found no evidence of increased herpes virus reactivation in ME/CFS, and some evidence of it in MS. The group didn’t close the book on the possibility of herpesvirus reactivation in ME/CFS, though, stating that other antibody tests for EBV might produce different results.

Conclusion

The Cliff study was a large UK Biobank study using both Fukuda and/or Canadian Consensus Criteria to identify its patients. The study’s finding of moderately increased ESR levels in the mild/moderate patients was surprising, given past reports of low ESR levels in ME/CFS.

Except in patients who have been exposed to cytomegalovirus (CMV) in the past, the study found no evidence of natural killer cell issues in ME/CFS. The researchers did not, however, use a functional assay used successfully in the past which more directly measures NK or T-cell killing capacity.

The study’s major finding was a significant increase of specialized T-cells called MAIT cells in the severely ill patients. MAIT cells are found across the body but are most known for the role they play protecting the gut lining from toxic bacteria. High levels of MAIT cells have been associated with infectious diseases, autoimmunity and cancer.

This is the second recent and, it should be noted, independent report of high levels of MAIT cells in ME/CFS. In fact, these two reports are the first time MAIT cells have been implicated in this disease.

Dervy Unutmaz and Dr. Oh of the Jackson Labs are currently trying to isolate the bacteria triggering the high levels of MAIT cells they’ve found in ME/CFS.

The Cliff study did find moderate T-cell anomalies which could possibly reflect a state of chronic T-cell activation caused by an infection or autoimmune response. Derya Unutmaz also recently reported he’d found evidence of immune cell exhaustion in his T-cell studies.

East African Disease Informs Nath’s Search for the Cause of ME/CFS

Could a disease found in the remote villages of East Africa end up being a model for chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)?

Ugandan Village

Ugandan Village (from the NIH)

Dr. Avindra Nath – the leader of the NIH Intramural study on ME/CFS –  thinks perhaps so. He’s not daunted by mysterious diseases and nor should he be. Just a couple of years ago his NIH team was able – by bringing new technology to bear – to unravel a mysterious disease plaguing children in Africa. Using a much larger array of tests he’s hoping to do the same in ME/CFS.

Nath became acquainted with “nodding syndrome” at a meeting in Uganda in 2012. This strange and often devastating disease, found in the remote regions of Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan, causes children’s heads to periodically nod  and can produce seizures, mild to severe cognitive impairment, muteness, gait problems, paralysis and often death. Brain scans have shown significant brain atrophy.

Studies suggested that the disease was linked to a parasite, Onchocerca volvulus, carried by the black fly, but numerous efforts to find the parasite in the brain or cerebral spinal fluid failed.  Attempts to tie it to immune factors including autoantibodies, as well as genetics, toxins, nutritional factors, and others came to naught as well.

Like ME/CFS the speculation regarding the cause of nodding syndrome has been rife with possible connections to autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s, poor nutrition, PTSD and others being put forth. Ugandan psychiatrists have even proposed that the disease is a form of “Developmental Trauma Disorder” brought on by the war.

Enter Nath, Tory Johnson, a former postdoc fellow of his, and Thomas Nutman, a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) researcher.  Suspecting the problem was autoimmunity, they brought out one of their big guns – a kind of protein chip technology that allowed them to screen for thousands of antibodies at once.

The results were tantalizing. The levels of four antibodies were 100 fold higher in the sick children compared to the healthy children.  Further testing revealed that two of these antibodies were more reactive or active in the sick children. They ended up focusing on one antibody found in both the blood and cerebral spinal fluid.

This antibody – which was linked to the leiomodin-1 protein  – reacted 33,000 times more strongly in the children with nodding syndrome.  Interestingly, both groups – the sick and the healthy children – carried the antibodies, but they were elevated in the sick children.

Leiomodin-1 staining neurons

Staining reveals Leiomodin-1 antibody (green) interacts with human neurons

After finding this link, they deepened their search. The leiomodin-1 protein had been found primarily in smooth muscle tissue and the thyroid, but if it was causing the neurodegenerative symptoms it had to be in the brain as well. Further testing, including immunostaining human neurons, indicated that protein was indeed found in parts of the brain imaging studies had indicated were associated with nodding syndrome.

Having established a putative link between the antibody and the disease (that it was found in and could potentially affect the brain) the next step was to demonstrate that the antibody could indeed be causing the disease. Subjecting cultured human neurons to the antibody showed that the antibodies could indeed be damaging the childrens’ neurons.

Getting at the source of the antibody was next. The authors hypothesized that an immune attack against the parasitic worm had gone awry and was attacking the ill childrens’ neurons. This could only happen, though, if the parasitic worm and human neurons shared genetic sequences that could cause the immune system to mistakenly attack human neurons. Studies confirmed that a very short sequence of the parasite’s tropomyosin gene was quite similar to a sequence expressed in human neurons.

autoimmune responses ME/CFS

Nath believes the infections may have triggered a variety of autoimmune responses targeting the brain in ME/CFS

With that, the circle was closed. They had identified an antibody, shown it was in the brains of the sick children, showed that it could do damage to the neurons that were damaged in the children, and demonstrated similar genetic sequences were present in the parasite and humans.

There was still the nagging issue of antibody prevalence, though.  Only slightly over 50% of the sick children had antibodies to leiomodin-1. If the antibody to leiomodin-1 was causing the disease in these children, what was causing the disease in the others?

Nath et al proposed that the parasite triggers a different immune response in different children.  Some of the children developed autoantibodies that damaged neurons in their CNS  – and produced nodding syndrome (which is now understood to be a form of autoimmune epilepsy).

This syndrome is likely not a disease mediated by a single immune specificity. We speculate that nodding syndrome may not be a single antibody syndrome.  Nath et al.

Citing test results which showed a range of elevated autoantibodies in the sick children, they suggested that some children with nodding syndrome have developed antibodies to  neuronal proteins other than leiomodin-1.

A Model for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)?

Nath reported that his approach to ME/CFS has been shaped by his experiences with nodding syndrome. He suspects the infectious onset that so many people with this disease experienced triggered their immune system to accidentally produce autoantibodies that are attacking their central nervous system or other parts of the body.

If suspect antibodies show up, future research efforts will presumably proceed down the same pathway as they did in Nodding Disease: first they will identify the proteins the antibodies are attacking, and then they will determine where those proteins are found, and demonstrate experimentally that the antibodies are likely doing damage.

Nath and his compatriots uncovered the antibody connection to nodding disease seven years ago – a long time in this age of fast moving medical technology. Nath reported he’ll be using a newer approach involving mass spectrometry, or phage display, in ME/CFS which will allow him to “probe almost infinite numbers of proteins/peptides”.

Seven years ago, extensive testing had failed to find a culprit leaving the cause of nodding syndrome a complete mystery. In 2017 Nath et. al. produced a clear pathway that explains about 50% of nodding syndrome victims.

Technology Paves the Way

Note that the breakthrough didn’t come from the slow accumulation of results over decades; –  it occurred very quickly and simply required the right technology being applied to the disease. When that happened, a cause of the disease became clear, and researchers simply proceeded down established pathways to prove  it.

Nath and the NIH are looking at much more than antibodies in their intramural study, and ME/CFS, with its multiplicity of triggers, is likely to be more complex than nodding syndrome. The same principle, though, – a variety of autoimmune processes produced by an infectious trigger – may apply.

Dr. Nath appears to have gotten at a cause of one mysterious disease. May he be as successful with this one.

Check out an interview with Dr. Nath

Dr Nath Talks on the ME/CFS NIH Intramural Study

The NIH’s Accelerating Research on ME/CFS Conference

Because of a death in the family, Brian Wallitt will be presenting in Dr. Nath’s place at the NIH conference. Dr. Nath reported that Wallit will present on the high rate of rare diseases found during the first half of the study and some other data but will not present statistical analyses. With just half of the projected participants having finished the first part of a two-part study, the lack of statistical analyses is not really a surprise.

Brian Wallitt will be presenting at 10:00 AM EST on April 5th (day two) of the Accelerating Research on ME/CFS conference – the first NIH sponsored research conference on the disease since 2011. Check out the agenda here.

Learn more about the NIH Conference below.

NIH Brings in New Faces and Looks to the Future in Accelerating ME/CFS Research Conference

A Former Doctor Goes Through the NIH’s ME/CFS Intramural Study

Robert’s Story

Robert, an MD, is board certified in internal medicine. After the worst flu-like illness he ever had, he ended up in the hospital.  A regular exerciser prior to becoming ill, his legs were so weak that he could hardly walk afterwards.

His path to a chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) diagnosis was rapid. Three months of testing left him no other conclusion – it was clear to him that he had ME/CFS.  He was able to work on and off for a few years, but his health has deteriorated. He’s been unable to work for the last three years.

ME/CFS diagnosis

Robert, a former MD, was able to rapidly diagnose himself but remains severely ill.

Thankfully, he had a wide array of doctor friends who knew him before he became ill and didn’t encounter the skepticism and invalidation so commonly experienced in our community. He noted that our current medical culture doesn’t offer much for the complex patient. Doctors are busy and often time-constrained and if you don’t fit into one of the medical pigeon-holes, they don’t have much to offer.

Rating his level of health on a scale of 1-10 at 2, he’s one of the sickest, if not the sickest, ME/CFS patient to participate in the grueling two-part intramural study at the NIH. He was the first patient to go through the second phase of the Intramural trial which involved, among other things, the exercise study and an extended stay in a metabolic chamber.

One theme – validation – cropped up several times during Robert’s week long stay at the NIH hospital in Maryland. It was clearly apparent from the gestures of sympathy from the occupational therapist during a test to assess functioning.  Given cards which identified an activity, Robert put them into two piles – activities he used to do and activities he still did. The occupational therapist – who has probably given this test hundreds if not thousands of times – registered dismay at the few cards left in his “still do” pile. Those few cards left made the extra level of devastation that ME/CFS is so good at causing clear. It’s rare for people who are not elderly to be so sick.

Given his abysmal level of functioning, Robert’s willingness to participate in a study that Dr. Nath thought few might be willing to undergo was a real testament to the courage and determination that so impressed Dr. Nath. Despite Robert’s low functional level (1-2 on a 10-point scale), he was disappointed that the NIH was not doing a two-day exercise test (!).

The second part of the study is centered around the exercise stressor. Participants do cognitive testing, blood tests, the Seahorse mitochondrial test, a functional MRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation before and after the maximal exercise test.  (The NIH communicated with the Workwell Foundation on doing the exercise test with ME/CFS patients).

Exercise is finally getting its due in ME/CFS, and over the next couple of years several large studies should tell us much. With its extensive blood draws and millions of data points, Dr. Klimas’s exercise studies have informed her models of ME/CFS and laid the foundations for her clinical trial.  With help from the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, David Systrom has added gene expression to his already complex invasive cardiopulmonary exercise testing.  Maureen Hanson has incorporated exercise into her large NIH Research Center studies at Cornell, as well.  None of these studies, though, can match the sheer breadth of this NIH exercise study with its brain scans, lumbar punctures, Seahorse data, blood draws, etc..

Metabolic Chamber

Robert spent about three days in the metabolic chamber – a sparse box containing a bed and a toilet that’s designed to produce precise measures of metabolic activity – before and after the exercise test.  (I will expand on the metabolic chamber).  He wore an EEG, blood pressure and Holter monitor, while in the chamber.

Only thirty metabolic chambers exist in the world, and three of them are at the NIH. With 400 metabolic chamber studies underway every year, they’re pretty much in use all the time. These airtight 11-by-11.5-foot rooms aren’t much to look at or stay in: they come with a bed, an exercise bike, a toilet, and nothing else. Precisely measured meals are delivered through a small, air-locked opening in the wall.

metabolic chamber NIH

An early metabolic chamber at the NIH in 1957

Metal pipes running along the ceiling that measure oxygen consumption and CO2 production allow researchers to precisely calculate an individual’s metabolic rate.  From the O2 and CO2 readings, researchers can calculate calories burned and what type of fuel (carbs/fats) was used to burn them. Urine is collected to assess protein oxidation.

Metabolic chamber studies have demonstrated how flexible the body is with respect to metabolism. One reporter wrote, for instance, that they’ve debunked the idea that ketogenic diets (high-fat/low-carb) cause the body to burn more fat than high-carb diets.

Energy is burned in our body in three ways. It turns out that simply staying alive is pretty energy intensive. Most of the calories we burn (65-80%) are used simply to keep our body running (basal metabolism). Digestion is no walk in the park either; digesting our food takes up about 10% of the calories we burn in a day, with physical activity accounting for the remainder (10-30%).

If ME/CFS patients’ metabolic production and ability to produce energy is altered by exercise – as Workwell’s and Dr. Keller’s tests suggest it is – that will hopefully be picked up by the metabolic chamber.

Robert noted that if they can pair the findings from the metabolic chamber – which is measuring the metabolic effects of exercise – with the Seahorse tests- which are measuring energy production on the cellular level, they may really be onto something.

Brain Scan

The functional MRI – which Robert said was combined with a cognitive test – will assess the impact of exercise on a) cognitive functioning and b) brain functioning. A similar study by the CDC suggested that exercise negatively impacted both cognitive and brain functioning.

People who do cognitive tests tend to improve the more they do them but not in this case – not in people with ME/CFS after exercise.  Familiarity did not breed more competence. Despite doing the tests multiple times, the people with ME/CFS did worse and worse on them after exercise and the brain scans indicated why. Exercise had knocked out one area of the brain devoted to sustained attention causing the brain – in a mostly futile attempt to compensate – to increase activity in other parts of the brain (devoted to executive functioning).

A Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Brain on Exercise – Not a Pretty Sight

The end result was that people with ME/CFS expended more effort during the cognitive test and yet did worse. By the end of the test they were making about double the errors of the healthy controls.

rTMS Test

motor cortex

The rTMS test appeared to be designed to stimulate Robert’s motor cortex to activate his muscles.

The repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) test proved enormously interesting but physically draining.  Robert reported that in a process that took hours, data from a previous fMRI was used map the exact location of his motor cortex in order to stimulate the muscles of his right hand/fingers.  The goal was apparently to determine the speed at which the signal traveled from the brain to the muscle of his finger before and after exercise.  A time delay after exercise would presumably indicate that exercise had interfered with the ability of the motor cortex to activate the muscles.

A 2003 study, in fact, suggested that reduced muscle recruitment due to reduced motor cortex output was occurring in ME/CFS. The motor cortex, it turns out, plans our movements in advance. The study, titled “Deficit in motor performance correlates with changed corticospinal excitability in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome“ suggested that problems in the “motor preparatory areas of the brain” might be hampering physical movements in ME/CFS. It has never to my knowledge been followed up on.

rTMS has relieved pain in fibromyalgia but it had the opposite effects in Robert. He wasn’t clear whether it was the effects of the rTMS or the rigors of setting up the test itself or both which triggered for him what turned out to be an extraordinary bout of PEM (post exertional malaise). The 2 hours it took – sitting up – to get the electrodes correct was in itself draining. (He suggested that they use a reclining chair for future patients if possible.)

At the end of test Robert felt exhausted and experienced transient vertigo, auditory disturbance, headache and sensitivity to light and noises.  His nurse was shocked at how poorly he looked.  He’d mentioned the documentary Unrest to her the day before. After seeing the movie, she said she could better appreciate what he was going through. (Hopefully she knows that watching the film will get her continuing medical education (CME) credits)

The rTMS test proved immediately much more exhausting than the exercise test, the effects of which took a day to kick in. The rTMS specialist/researcher was surprised at the effect the test had on Robert and its cause is unknown. Was it the long preparatory period or the activity of the rTMS machine on the muscle activation pathways or both?  It’ll be fascinating to see how other patients fare.

Robert was also tested for small fiber neuropathy via skin biopsy, underwent a post exercise lumbar puncture and quadricep muscle biopsy.  The possibility of integrating the brain scan, cerebral spinal fluid, Seahorse and metabolic chamber results after exercise – not to mention the immune tests – is an enticing one for sure.

NIH intramural ME/CFS study data collection

The study, which is going to generate an enormous amount of data, is still several years away from completion.

Plus there are the muscle biopsy results. Robert’s experience of a rather hefty muscle biopsy suggests that the NIH is not stinting on this area – which Dr. Nath believes may tell us much about ME/CFS.

Plenty of rest periods were provided during the study but at times the testing was lengthy, and the study, predictably, ended up being a rather grueling seven days for this courageous but very disabled ME/CFS patient. Participating in it wasn’t easy but the fact that Robert, even with his abysmal level of functionality, made it through it and recovered, was a good sign. Robert said he was touched by a chaplain who stopped by to see how he was doing.

He’s stayed in touch with the investigators from time to time alerting them of developments in the ME/CFS field.

Participating in the Study

The NIH needs more participants. If you’re interested in helping to further ME/CFS research by participating in the study, check out the study criteria below.

All participants must be 18-60 years old and have at least a 7th grade education. People whose ME/CFS started after an episode of infection and who have severe symptoms lasting from 6 months to 5 years are eligible to participate in the study.

Find out how to participate here.

Learn more about the Intramural Study

Dr Nath Talks on the ME/CFS NIH Intramural Study

Dr Nath Talks on the ME/CFS NIH Intramural Study

It looked like we were going to be late … again. It was pouring cats and dogs as we eased the van around tangled web of streets that is the NIH campus scanning glumly at the rain-obscured buildings. Even our guide on the phone seemed to be lost.

It had been a wild 12 hours. The night before, reaching up to turn on the fan on my brother’s porch, I’d let loose a rather large bug which tumbled into my eye. Howling with pain I stumbled off to the bathroom where I managed to wash it out – leaving my eye reddened and swollen. The next morning, my eye still swollen, my partner insisted I see an eye doctor.

 

NIH

Getting to Dr Nath’s office proved to be a challenge

To our surprise we found somebody. The problem was was that his office was right in the heart of downtown Washington DC. – where parking is scarce and traffic cops take their jobs very seriously. Finding no parking we stopped in a loading zone across from the doctor’s office, hoping that the big yellow van with it’s solar panels, Nevada license plate and all would for the next 15 minutes be taken for a loading van –

After being assured the appointment would be short, I dashed inside where I was  bombarded by frantic calls from my partner (who does not drive the van). She had immediately been accosted by first one then another traffic cop.

After seeing the doctor who informed me (for $250 dollars) that insects in the eyes almost never cause problems (but who did give me drops) I dashed back out to the van to find my now none-too happy partner.

We sped off in the rain – still seemingly on time for the appointment with Dr. Nath. Hauling up to the NIH we tried no less than three entrances – only to be turned away at each them (our oversize vehicle thwarting one attempt) – and directed to the next. Finally, as our appointment time came and went, we found the right entrance – for, ironically, delivery vehicles.

After going through an extensive (and time-consuming) security check we headed off into the labyrinth that is the NIH clutching small hard to decipher maps and immediately got lost. The  minutes continued to tick by and rain strengthened into a deluge and eventually we managed to steer onto the right street. Our guide, still on the phone, told us to stop, we jumped out of the car and looked up, rain pouring down, at a steep, muddy climb.

Five minutes later – 45 minutes late for our hour appointment, we strode, soaked and bedraggled into Dr. Nath’s office. He immediately set us at ease, and with his next appointment running late stayed overtime with us. We were there to talk about the NIH Intramural ME/CFS study.

The NIH Intramural ME/CFS Study

Dr. Nath informed us that the applications to be in the NIH Intramural ME/CFS study have been gratifyingly robust.  Dr. Nath noted that it was entirely possible that this is the most rigorously examined patient group ever assembled for a study.

Dr. Nath

Dr. Nath is leading the study. He has been around. He received his MD degree from Christian Medical College in India in 1981, completed a residency in Neurology from The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, did a fellowship in Multiple Sclerosis and Neurovirology at the same institution, and then another fellowship in Neuro-AIDS at NINDS.

Then it was up to Canada, where he held a faculty position at the University of Manitoba (1990-97), and then he was at The University of Kentucky (1997-02). In 2002, he became Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Neuroimmunology and Neurological Infections at Johns Hopkins.

in 2011, he became the Clinical Director of NINDS, the Director of the Translational Neuroscience Center, and Chief of the Section of Infections of the Nervous System. His research focuses on understanding the pathophysiology of nervous system infections and their outcomes, and the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for these diseases. He’s heavily involved in HIV research, the role endogenous retroviruses play in neurological diseases, and “undiagnosed neuroimmune and neuroinfectious diseases”.

He recently wrote a paper on Herpes Viruses, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Related Dementias: Unifying or Confusing Hypothesis?, which examined what role herpesviruses might be playing in dementia.

The NIH Intramural Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Study

The study takes place in two parts: a one week part which further assesses the potential participant and another one week section which measures a wide variety of parameters before and after an exercise test.

Requirements for entry are high, however, and not often met. You might say that many have been called – or rather have called – but few have been chosen. That was OK with Dr. Nath. “We need,” he explained, “to make sure that we’re studying the right population. That’s the best way to get to the answer, and then it’ll be broadly applicable.”

The response has been excellent.  Many people are traveling to participate, and they’re coming from all over. The NIH is even getting interest from people in other countries.

As of Dec. last year, 337 people had inquired about the study. One hundred and seventy-three were quickly screened out, and 164 participated in phone interviews. One hundred and twenty-seven made it to the medical record assessment stage.

Multiple reasons thwarted would-be participants from participating in the study.  The study required onset within 5 years which was triggered by infection. One-third had had the disease for too long, 20% had no evidence of infectious process (doctor’s records are required), 9% were too sick to travel, and just 3% were unwilling to have a lumbar puncture.

community ME/CFS

Nath noted that the ME/CFS community was very motivated to be in the study

The researchers were surprised at the last two figures. They expected, based on their experience from past studies, much higher percentages of people who were too sick to travel or unwilling to have a lumbar puncture. Dr. Nath well knows how difficult it can be to get people to participate in a study, but that’s not a problem here. Calling the numbers “very good”, Dr. Nath said the ME/CFS community was clearly “very motivated to participate in the study”.

It is not an easy study! It’s a two-part, two-week plus study on a population, which studies suggest, has the lowest functionality of any disease. The study includes a lumbar puncture, a maximal exercise test, several nights in a metal box (metabolic chamber), tilt table test, muscle biopsy, brain scans, lengthy neuropsychological tests and scads of blood tests. Every part of you is going to be probed.

Plus, you have to provide your entire medical history, get interviewed several times, and then, most likely travel.

Dr. Nath said he looked at the study – which is clearly larger and more intensive than most  – and said, “who is going to enroll in this study?” Laughing, he joked that, “I wouldn’t volunteer on my own study!” He was afraid no one was going to show up!  Instead he said the patients were very willing to undergo all the tests and are grateful for it.

Recruitment has been good, but as with any study, Dr. Nath said, it was high at first, and now it’s tailed off. As of March of this year, 19 ME/CFS patients and 21 healthy controls had completed the first phase of the study, and six people with ME/CFS and 7 controls had completed phase II.

Thus far, then, about half the projected participants (n=40 ME/CFS; 40 healthy controls) have gone through the first week of the study and about 15% have completed the entire study.

Quite a few people with autoimmune disorders have shown up during the filtering out process. Nath suggested that could be an interesting cohort to study on its own.  He’s also found quite a bit of head injury and loss of consciousness – which makes MRI and brain scans difficult to assess – and people with seizures and strokes. Interestingly, bnly one person had had a diagnosis of major depression….

High Percentage of Rare Diseases 

It’s a small sample set but it’s remarkable how many people participating in the first week were diagnosed with a rare disease. In something of a testament to the thoroughness of the study, almost third of week one participants (6/19) were found to have a rare disorder which the researchers believed was probably causing their symptoms and dismissed from the study. One appeared to have Parkinson’s Disease, another a neurological disease and I’m unsure of the others.

The study was designed to catch these people.  In fact because ME/CFS is something of a wastebasket diagnosis it went to extra lengths to ensure it was really studying ME/CFS.  Plus Dr. Nath reported that neurological diseases are inherently hard to diagnose anyway.  It is not unusual for people with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, etc to be misdiagnosed with some other disease initially.  Plus, the opposite can happen (and has happened in ME/CFS) with some patients being misdiagnosed with M.S. for many years only to find later that they have some other immune disorder.

Big Data

They are gathering lots and lots of data – which brings its own problem. The study includes two different brain scans, blood, saliva, urine and stool samples, exercise data, tilt table data, spinal taps, Seahorse data, metabolic room data, cognitive testing, muscle and skin biopsies, and I’m probably missing some. I asked Nath, how will they able to integrate all this disparate data?

rare disorder chronic fatigue

Rare disorders are popping up at a high rate in the study group

Nath agreed that it was a challenge, but noted that that kind of challenge is a pretty common challenge now. Some of the really big Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s studies contain thousands of individuals, each of whom has done thousands of tests. Computational biology has become a major part of medical research.

Google, not surprisingly, is collaborating with the NIH to create better ways to analyze data. Many of the discoveries in medicine today, Nath said, actually occur as breakthroughs in physics; MRI and CT scans, for example – came from physics.

Their general hypothesis is that an infection triggers brain and immune system issues (ranging from persistent immune activation to immune dysregulation) that stay stuck.  They don’t believe the nature of the infection is particularly important.

Check out a disease Nath believes could prove a model for ME/CFS

East African Disease Informs Nath’s Search for the Cause of ME/CFS

No Preliminary Findings Yet

Nath was unable to give me any preliminary findings. One reason is that they are storing samples so they can run them all at the same time. Another is that, echoing Ron and Mark Davis’s thoughts, they don’t want to even try to come up with hypotheses yet. They simply want to gather more and more data.

Making a conclusion on the basis of small samples is, Nath said, the kiss the death. They will not even try to interpret their findings until about half the study is done.

If, when they get to the end of the study, they see trends but don’t quite have a significant result, they’ll do sample size calculations to determine how many more patients they’ll need to see to get to statistical significance. If the calculation says do another 10 patients, they’ll probably expand the study to do 12 more. If the calculation says do another 100 patients, that’s too much.

They’re preventing another kind of bias by recoding the samples, so the analyst doesn’t know which are from patients and which are from controls.

The Study

Brian Vastag’s visit raised the issue of mitochondrial problems. Nath believes studying the muscle itself may be more important than assessing mitochondrial problems using the blood, and added muscle biopsies to the study. The muscle biopsies will be tested for DNA analysis, structural issues, and staining for various kinds of cells.

The Open Medicine Foundation and Ron Davis apparently believe likewise. They’ve pumped a million dollars into an ME/CFS Collaborative Research Center at Harvard lead by Ron Tompkins which will focus on figuring out what is going on in the muscles.

muscles ME/CFS

Dr. Nath believes the muscles could tell us much about ME/CFS

Because lots of patients have autonomic symptoms, the NIH is doing tilt table tests. Once those turn out positive, Nath said, the next question is why the autonomic nervous system problems are present. They’re doing small fiber neuropathy skin tests and examining the heart, peripheral nerves, adrenal glands, and sympathetic nervous system functioning.

I asked him if there were any surprises, and there were.  As Robert’s story will show, the NIH doesn’t seem to be prepared for the level of devastation ME/CFS can wreak in a relatively young group of patients.

Nath said his personal contact with the patients has led him to develop a real appreciation for the disease. These patients, he said, “are devastated”. Whether or not this study finds a cause, the reality, Nath said, is that the lives of the study patients are “totally messed up.” Then he made an important point.  Seeing the patients in the flesh naturally causes him and other researchers to develop additional empathy for them and “another level of appreciation” for them and their disease.

It was clear that just by being there and exposing the researchers and doctors at the NIH to this disease, the participants in the study are making a difference.  The lengths to which some patients are going to participate in this study are amply illustrated by Robert’s story.

Participating in the Study

The NIH needs more participants. If you’re interested in helping to further ME/CFS research by participating in the study, check out the study criteria below.

All participants must be 18-60 years old and have at least a 7th grade education. People whose ME/CFS started after an episode of infection and who have severe symptoms lasting from 6 months to 5 years are eligible to participate in the study.

Find out more here.

A former doctor on his experience going through the NIH’s intramural study

A Former Doctor Goes Through the NIH’s ME/CFS Intramural Study

Catching ME/CFS in the Act: The Collaborative on Fatigue Following Infection (COFFI)

It sounds like a great idea – combine all the post-infectious fatigue studies together into one database in order to find answers to one of the biggest questions in ME/CFS – why do some people stay ill after an infection while others recover?

infection - chronic fatigue

Every major infection has provoked a similar response – a significant number of people become chronically ill.

COFFI (Collaborative on Fatigue Following Infection) incorporates no less than 9 studies that have examined post-infective fatigue or illness. The Dubbo study – pioneered by Andrew Lloyd and funded by Australian Health Agencies and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S., still in some ways the best study – started it all off.

The most dramatic conclusion of the first Dubbo study was that somewhere around 10% of people exposed to a serious infection remained ill six months later. Remarkably, the kind of infection – viral or bacterial – didn’t matter. It seemed that being exposed to any serious infection left one at risk for a prolonged fatiguing illness.

Since the Dubbo studies began, eight other post-infectious cohort studies have finished up or are underway. The largest of these are the four Chicago cohort studies (about 1000 participants) under the direction of Ben Katz and Lenny Jason, which have been examining infectious mononucleosis college students for almost ten years. There’s also campylobacter gastroenteritis (n=600), Legionnaires disease (n=190), and Ross River Virus (n=60) cohorts. All told, about 3000 people have participated in 9 studies which have examined people who failed to recover from an infection.

COFFI believes that susceptible individuals develop prolonged fatigue after infection because of biological (immune system, autonomic nervous system, etc.), behavioral and/or environmental effects, which produce alterations in neurobehavioural, cardiovascular and/or immunological systems. The goal of the collaborative is to elucidate what went wrong in those with post-viral (and bacterial) illnesses.

On the face of it, the collaboration holds great promise. How better, after all, to learn about how an illness develops than to capture it in its earliest stages?

The Post-Infectious Illness Group

Different flavors of post-infectious illness exist. One set involving diseases like acute disseminated encephalomyelitis and Guillain-Barre Syndrome produces very dramatic symptoms (paralysis, coma) and is studied. The other produces less dramatic symptoms (fatigue, cognitive problems, PEM) etc., but despite the tremendous functional hits seen, has mostly skated under the scientific establishment’s radar.

The studies that have emerged in the second group look like the kind of studies you would expect from a niche topic. They tend to be underfunded, focus on more easily and cheaply assessed factors, are often light on biological analyses, and sometimes focus on behavioral factors.

Nevertheless, some foundational findings have emerged. First – any serious infection is going to incapacitate a significant subset of those afflicted. The results have been remarkably consistent across types of infectious onset, with most showing from 9-13% of those encountering a serious infection of any type are still ill at six months and 7-9% remain ill a year later.

That’s obviously not a small number of people.

Lloyd, the senior author of the collaborative, has enrolled a mishmash of partners. They include biologically oriented members (Ben Katz, Renee Taylor, Ute Vollmer-Conna, Knut-Arne Wensaas, Jeannine L.A. Hautvast), some in-betweener’s (Brun Wyller, Dedra Buchwald, Renee Taylor) and some behaviorists (Peter White, Esther Crawley, Gabrielle Murphy, Rona Moss-Morris).

The Epidemiological Efforts

Giardia

The Bergen Giardia studies demonstrate the funding woes present in this field. They’ve succeeded in documenting high rates of ME/CFS, chronic fatigue and/or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) years after an extended Giardia outbreak in Norway.  The studies have established that the outbreak has had a significant health impact on a substantial number of people – an important finding for sure – but it’s been unable, until recently, to delve into any biological factors. (A genetic study is underway.)

The Biopsychosocial Efforts

Moss-Morris’s work shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has moved into clearly defined biological illnesses such as MS and renal disease. She’s managed to study the behavioral aspects of fatigue and/or conducted CBT trials in no less than five diseases – ME/CFS, IBS, multiple sclerosis, renal disease and cancer. (The MS CBT trial was deemed successful.)

Moss-Morris assessed epidemiological and biopsychosocial factors in people who became ill following a campylobacter infection (food poisoning). Ironically, that study suggested that those who tried hardest to ignore or push past their illness (e.g. who felt “I must not let this get the better of me” and who engaged in all-or-nothing behavior) were most likely to get ill. (So much for the malingering hypothesis).

chaos

The biopsychological studies have failed to provide consistent theme

Psychologist Peter White must have been chagrined to find that his Bart cohort failed to indicate that mood disorders or negative life events contributed to a “fatigue syndrome” after an infection.

The results of Buchwald’s 2000 infectious mononucleosis study must have flummoxed everyone.

It suggested that a greater number of life events more than six months before the illness began and increased family support were predictive of those who remained ill.

The Q fever studies ended up with a similarly hard to understand mix of factors. Female gender, being younger, having a pre-existing health condition, and being hospitalized in the previous 3 months might make some sense, but why would consuming no alcohol and using medication contribute to a prolonged illness?

The Qure study found that long-term doxycycline treatment utterly failed to move the needle on the illness; i.e. a persistent bug is not responsible.  CBT, on the other hand, improved fatigue and symptoms somewhat but completely failed in the most important measure – improving functionality. (By reducing stress, behavioral therapies should provide some symptom reduction…)

The lack of a recognizable theme suggests that the biopsychosocial results are not getting at the root of anything.  If the goal is illness eradication, researchers need to dig into the biology, and biological efforts have indeed achieved better results.

Biological Efforts

The studies that have dug deeper into biology appear to have been more successful.  Blood tests in the Dubbo studies suggested that pathogen persistence was not the issue: in every case the pathogen appeared, at least, to have been vanquished.

The results of the Qure study on the effectiveness of long-term doxycycline treatment in those with prolonged Q fever suggested the same: it found that the standard treatment for the disease had no effect at all on those who remained ill.

Nor did immune activation over time – as measured by cytokine levels – appear to cause disease persistence in the Dubbo group.

The only risk factors identified occurred early in the illness. Higher levels of cytokines and symptom severity early in the illness appeared to set the stage for a prolonged illness. This suggested that the bug – whichever bug it was – did its damage early and then disappeared.

Genetic studies then suggested a reason why. Immune gene polymorphisms were found in this group which predisposed them to a heightened immune response when confronted with a pathogen.  With three studies confirming and extending that finding, it seems solid. It appears that people with polymorphisms in specific immune genes that heighten the inflammatory response are more likely to become and stay ill.

consistency

The biological studies have provided a more consistent theme of immune activation and autonomic nervous system activation.

The ongoing Chicago infectious mononucleosis studies have dug a bit deeper biologically and uncovered some interesting findings.  Autonomic symptoms and early illness severity were predictive of a prolonged illness (while perceived stress, stressful life events, family stress, difficulty functioning and attending school, and psychiatric disorders were not).

Six months of illness resulted in lower oxygen consumption and reduced peak oxygen pulse; i.e. problems utilizing oxygen – something that Hanson’s latest metabolomic study and others suggested may be happening. (The authors called this “reduced fitness” and “efficiency of exercise.”).  Plus, a network analysis was able to diagnose 80% of ill patients using immune factors, and at six months autonomic nervous symptoms stood out. The analysis suggested a powerful pro-inflammatory immune state persisted for as long as 24 months after the initial onset.

The new “Dubbo studies” (“The Sydney Infectious Outcomes Study (SIOS)) have found an early reduction in heart rate variability, suggesting autonomic nervous system involvement.

In contrast to the biopsychosocial-oriented studies, a theme may be emerging in the biological studies: immune activation and autonomic nervous system problems early, resulting possibly in problems with oxygen utilization, with autonomic nervous system problems persisting.

Wyller’s Weird Results Or Why a Poor Study is Worse Than No Study at All

Many of the post-infective studies have been confined to charting epidemiological factors. Only the initial Dubbo study and the Katz/Taylor Chicago studies have tried to dig deeply at all into biological factors. Even then the scope of the studies has been limited.

Brun Wyller’s CEBA studies (Chronic Fatigue Following Acute Epstein-Barr Virus Infection in Adolescents) appeared at first glance, to fix that. The three studies analyzed 149 factors including early illness severity, immune factors, neuroendocrine stress response, cognitive functioning, emotional disturbances, genetics/ epigenetics of candidate genes, personality traits, and critical life events during and after infectious mononucleosis (IM).

Steps Per Day

The first CEBA study (Lifestyle factors during acute Epstein Barr virus infection in adolescents predict physical activity six months later) assessed the effects of the 149 factors on the number of steps taken per day at six months in 200 individuals. None of the markers of infection or immune response studied affected activity levels.  (Nor did any psychological factors).

Instead, three factors – none of which showed up previously in the post-infectious studies – did. Baseline physical activity (steps per day), substance use (alcohol and illicit drugs), and human growth hormone were associated with reduced steps per day after six months. (Notice the opposing substance use results: low alcohol use was a risk factor for post-Q fever illness, while increased alcohol/substance use was a risk factor for post-infectious mononucleosis illness).

The results suggested that sedentary individuals with low HGH levels who were abusing alcohol/drugs and who became ill with IM are predisposed to be, guess what, more sedentary than usual six months after coming down with infectious mononucleosis.

That’s among the most underwhelming and just weird results I’ve ever seen, and one wonders why Wyller bothered to publish it.

Predictors of Chronic Fatigue

Predictors of chronic fatigue in adolescents six months after acute Epstein-Barr virus infection: A prospective cohort study.

Another study of Wyller’s cohort charted biological factors against fatigue at six months. The main finding that a bunch of symptoms (sensory sensitivity, pain severity, functional impairment, negative emotions) were associated with increased fatigue simply stated the obvious. The more fatigued a person was, the more negative emotions they had (what a surprise!), the more functionally limited they were (!!!!), and the more pain they were in (stunning!), etc.

The fact that viral load had no predictive value was in line with past studies. The slightly increased plasma C-reactive protein found (Wyller suggested it was caused by negative life events) and reduced plasma vitamin B12 levels were the only two biological factors that stood out.  Neither will move this field forward significantly.

Predictable Results?

So how did Wyller get such pitiful results?

It turned out the study was not as comprehensive as the 149 factors made it appear to be, and was rudimentary to boot.  Included in that 149 factor set were standard blood tests, demographic results, psychological testing, etc.

Wyller testing ME/CFS

Wyller’s testing regimen made a biological result unlikely.

Wyller used a Fatigue Scale – the Chalder Fatigue Scale – believed be problematic in ME/CFS.  His immune tests mostly consisted of immune cell counts which have historically not been particularly effective.  Natural killer cell cytotoxicity – which has consistently been found to be low in ME/CFS – was not done.

The one stressor used – during the autonomic nervous system testing (deep breathing while supine and during 3 minutes of standing) – was too mild (at least a 10 minute tilt table test is needed to diagnose POTS).

While changes in heart rate and blood pressure have been found in ME/CFS, heart rate variability is a more discerning factor and has been more commonly assessed and found altered in ME/CFS – but was not used in Wyller’s study. The cortisol blood test Wyller used has not been found effective in ME/CFS. (Blood cortisol awakening response and morning saliva cortisol tests (not done) have been more effective).

All in all, the study – with its lack of a significant stressor, its limited testing protocol and the use of measures which have not proved useful in ME/CFS – appears to have been almost doomed to failure.  One wonders why Wyller expected to find anything at all, and the results probably could have been predicted.

They also, not surprisingly, opened the door wide open to a biopsychosocial interpretation of ME/CFS that Wyller walked right through.  Wyller reported that,

“Taken together, the results seem to support a biopsychosocial rather than a biomedical perspective on the development of chronic fatigue and CFS.”

Lenny Jason’s Chicago Studies

The next Chicago studies, led by Lenny Jason, will examine many more biological factors in its next iteration. Unlike the Dubbo, Giardia, Wyller’s studies and others, Jason’s samples predate the illness onset, giving him the potential to uncover biological risk factors present before a person became ill.

He has blood samples from over 4,000 students, 4-5% of whom contracted infectious mononucleosis, which they are following. Papers should start appearing this spring/summer. As of October 2018, Jason was still in the process of applying for grants to study blood and saliva factors. They hope to study autonomic functioning, cytokine, metabolomic and saliva biological risk factors.

Jason’s preservation of his samples in a deep freeze means they’ll be able to be assessed as we learn more about ME/CFS over time.  They provide the potential for uncovering perhaps the greatest mystery of all in ME/CFS – what was going on before ME/CFS actually hit that put one at risk for it?

Conclusion

Time will tell if the The Collaborative on Fatigue Following Infection (COFFI) will help, hurt or do anything at all. If the embarrassingly rudimentary website with its weird ads is any indication, the group may not amount to much.

Wyller’s efforts indicate that rudimentary, poorly targeted efforts can do more harm than good if the authors decide to default to a historical norm: if you can’t find something biological, a biopsychosocial explanation must apply.  His results and other biopsychosocial study results are so bizarre, though, that one wonders if anyone will take them seriously.

trigger - post-infectious fatigue

The post-infectious studies have the possibility of catching the disease in the act.

The biological efforts are another story. These cohorts offer the enticing possibility of catching the disease in the act as it first manifests itself. The first post-infectious fatigue studies – the Dubbo studies – are still some of the best, and outlined some findings that have continued to stand: illness severity is a major risk factor and the bugs that triggered the illness in the first place don’t appear to play a role in prolonging it. The early cytokine and genetic results fit that picture: they suggest a stronger than usual early immune response may set the stage for ME/CFS.

Incorporating more sophisticated tests, the Chicago infectious immune studies add the possibility of long-term autonomic nervous system problems, further suggest immune issues play a role and, intriguingly, provide the first signs of impaired energy production during exercise.

Jason, if he can get the money to test his samples, has the opportunity, with his metabolomic, autonomic nervous system and immune testing, to provide more insights into how this illness got started in the first place and why it remains. Plus, his frozen samples provide the opportunity for future researchers to dig even deeper into these questions. They should prove invaluable.

 

 

Could the Gut Cure Neuroinflammation? An MS and ME/CFS/FM Inquiry

Gut Neuroinflammation Connection Revealed

“There is something very critical about how the gut and brain are connected, and we’re starting to unravel the molecular threads behind that clinical observation. It’s a great example of how fast science can move.” Jen Gommerman – co-author

Limiting our attention solely to chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), fibromyalgia (FM) and allied disorders might be a mistake. Recent studies indicate that ME/CFS and FM fit into the broad category of neuroinflammatory disorders which include multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease and others.

ME/CFS and FM neuroinflammatory

ME/CFS and FM may fit into a broad spectrum of neuroinflammatory disorders.

The same parts of the brain may not be affected in each disease, but it’s possible that each is undergirded by a similar inflammatory milieu. If the goal is to reduce neuroinflammation, then an approach that works in one disease could work in another.

The immense amount of research being devoted to these other neuroinflammatory disorders suggests they could provide critical insights into ME/CFS and FM as well.

A recent multiple sclerosis gut study provided a prime example of how progress in one neuroinflammatory disease may benefit others. It underscored the gut’s long reach and illuminated a potential treatment approach – not just for MS, but possibly also for other neuroinflammatory diseases.

It raised the possibility that manipulating one’s gut bacteria may at some point become an effective treatment approach in the fight against neuroinflammation.

Cell. 2018 Dec 21. pii: S0092-8674(18)31560-5. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.11.035. [Epub ahead of print] Recirculating Intestinal IgA-Producing Cells Regulate Neuroinflammation via IL-10. Rojas OL1, Pröbstel AK2, Porfilio EA1, Wang AA1, Charabati M3, Sun T1, Lee DSW1, Galicia G1, Ramaglia V1, Ward LA1, Leung LYT1, Najafi G1, Khaleghi K1, Garcillán B4, Li A5, Besla R6, Naouar I1, Cao EY1, Chiaranunt P1, Burrows K1, Robinson HG7, Allanach JR7, Yam J1, Luck H5, Campbell DJ8, Allman D9, Brooks DG10, Tomura M11, Baumann R2, Zamvil SS12, Bar-Or A13, Horwitz MS14, Winer DA6, Mortha A1, Mackay F4, Prat A3, Osborne LC7, Robbins C15, Baranzini SE16, Gommerman JL17.

Their study started in the head and moved downwards. Researchers wondered where the heck the plasma cells (IgA antibody producing B-cells) showing up in the central nervous systems of MS patients were coming from. It turned out they were coming from the gut.  They found that B-cells were making their way to the gut where gut bacteria where flipping their switch – and turning them into IgA producing plasma cells. Now their one and only goal was to produce IgA antibodies.

IgA antibody gut chronic fatigue

IgA antibody producing cells that are formed in the gut appear to play a major role in tamping down inflammation in the brain

Eventually they made their way up the body to the brain, where (in the presence of IL-10) they were tamping down inflammation. Interestingly, the guts of the mouse model for MS were deficient in these cells. These plasma B-cells were so effective at reducing brain inflammation that boosting their levels in the mice’s guts returned them to health.

The levels of these plasma cells are also reduced in the guts of humans during MS relapses – presumably because they’re being recruited to the brain to fight the inflammation.

This finding cleared up a conundrum – why knocking out B-cells tended to help people with MS while knocking out only the IgA-producing cells made them worse. B-cells were believed to promote neuroinflammation and autoimmunity and they do. The B-cell inhibitors used are believed to reduce T-cell activation and suppress autoantibody production.

No one suspected, though, that specialized B-cells might also play a critical role in suppressing inflammation. Knocking those cells out resulted in the patients getting worse.

Gut Modification

“Showing that IgA-producing B cells can travel from the gut to the brain opens a new page in the book of neuroinflammatory diseases and could be the first step towards producing novel treatments to modulate or stop MS and related neurological disorders.” Sergio Baranzini – co-author

The next steps seem clear: find a way to increase the number of IgA-producing plasma cells in the guts of people with neuroinflammatory disorders in the hope that they will knock down inflammation in the brain. Because some bacteria – which ones is unknown at the moment – trigger B-cells in the gut to change to IgA producing plasma B-cells, the next step is to identify that microbe and find a way to increase its numbers.  In other words, find a way for the gut to naturally reduce inflammation in the brain.

“If we can understand what these cells are reacting to, we can potentially treat MS by modulating our gut commensals. That might be easier than getting drugs into the brain, which is a strategy that hasn’t always worked in MS.” Gommerman – senior author

Potential Relevance to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Fibromyalgia, etc.

“As a clinician-scientist, it is exciting that our experiments linking preclinical animal models to the biology we see in real MS patients may have uncovered a general mechanism for how the immune system counteracts inflammation.” Pröbstel – co-author

Chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is not MS but the two diseases might be more closely related than one might think. Having mononucleosis/glandular fever increases the risk of coming down with either ME/CFS or MS and infections often trigger relapses in both diseases. The most disabling symptom in MS tends to be fatigue and both diseases mostly affect women. Plus pregnancy often brings a (temporary) respite in both diseases.

A Simmaron Research Foundation sponsored spinal fluid study found similar levels of immune alterations in ME/CFS and MS, and pointed to a major, almost MS-like, alteration of immune factors in ME/CFS.

Simmaron’s Spinal Fluid Study Finds Dramatic Differences in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Jarred Younger, who knows neuroinflammation as well as anyone in this field, believes that MS and ME/CFS could turn out to be close cousins. Younger believes the neuroinflammation present in both diseases may be similar, with the notable distinction that the immune cells in MS have been tweaked to attack the neurons, while those in ME/CFS, thankfully, have not. (Younger has begun a low dose naltrexone trial in early stage MS patients to see if he can stop the neuroinflammation before it has irrevocably damaged the nerves.)

 

Jarred Younger III : Treatments – A Better LDN and the Hunt for Microglia Inhibitors

What works in MS could work in ME/CFS and it already has – at least in two cases. A MS drug called Copaxone was very effective in two ME/CFS patients who’d been misdiagnosed with MS. In fact, it was much more effective in those patients – resulting in significant reductions in fatigue –  than it ever was in MS.

The really exciting thing about this study is its potential relatability to other diseases.  These researchers appeared to have stumbled upon a basic gut induced anti-inflammatory pathway that may help with other neuroinflammatory diseases including, who knows, perhaps ME/CFS and FM.

It’s clear that we can’t view MS as strictly a brain disease. Yes, the overt physical damage occurs in the brain, but gut issues play a role as well. In fact, this study suggests the possibility that gut damage – in the form of a dysregulated microbiome – might even play a critical role in allowing MS to progress.

Could the Gut Be a Potential Drug Factory?

Given the possibility that harnessing an as yet unknown microbe in the gut could reduce inflammation in the brain, one has to wonder if the gut, with its trillions of microbes, is a potential reservoir of drugs.  Could we tweak the microbes in the gut to provide other factors that reduce disease? Will gut manipulation ultimately play an important role in treating chronic diseases?

Immune Factor May Jump Start Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

December 31, 2018

“For the first time, we have shown that people who are prone to develop a CFS-like illness have an overactive immune system, both before and during a challenge to the immune system. Our findings suggest that people who have an exaggerated immune response to a trigger may be more at risk of developing CFS.” Alice Russell

This British study is interesting in so many ways. Most importantly, it draws a link between an overactive immune system and CFS-like chronic illness in Hepatitis C patients who were studied before and after treatment with an immune stimulant. The authors believe it may tell us why some people come down with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) after an infection. If so the Brits have found the first predictive blood factor for ME/CFS.

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Dec 14. pii: S0306-4530(18)30196-3. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.11.032. Persistent fatigue induced by interferon-alpha: a novel, inflammation-based, proxy model of chronic fatigue syndrome. Russell A1, Hepgul N2, Nikkheslat N3, Borsini A4, Zajkowska Z5, Moll N6, Forton D7, Agarwal K8, Chalder T9, Mondelli V10, Hotopf M11, Cleare A12, Murphy G13, Foster G14, Wong T15, Schütze GA16, Schwarz MJ17, Harrison N18, Zunszain PA19, Pariante CM20.

It is interesting in one way, because it comes out of King’s College London – the longtime home of Simon Wessely, the British psychologist who developed the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and graded exercise therapy (GET) approach to chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Wessely, a leader of the biopsychosocial approach to ME/CFS, championed the idea that psychological and social factors largely perpetuate ME/CFS.  Psychiatrists Trudy Chalder and Mathew Holtorf also hail from King’s College.  (Anthony Cleare, another psychiatrist from King’s College, has done substantial research into the HPA axis in ME/CFS over the past 20 years. Cleare’s 1995 paper used cortisol tests to differentiate ME/CFS from depression.)

Kings College Medicine

King’s College London has been the home of several prominent pyschiatrists studying ME/CFS (By Stephen Craven, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13848828)

Six years ago Medical Express reported that the PACE Trial – which Kings College researchers participated in – proved that CBT/GET practices “provide good value for the money“. Three years ago Queen Mary College of London and King’s College London dug their feet in to prevent the release of the raw PACE data.  It was King’s College that called the attempt to get the data “vexatious,” which in legal terms basically means without merit. The PACE findings are now in the throws of being discredited.

The study is also interesting because it was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), a United Kingdom based governmental agency that funds medical research. The MRC, which helped fund the PACE trial, has been a mixed bag. Funded studies on ethnicity, risk factors (biopsychosocial risk factors) and CBT speak to a strong behavioral thrust. However, the MRC has also funded studies on the mitochondria, the autonomic nervous system and now on an immunological model of ME/CFS.

A new generation of psychiatrists from King’s College appear to be taking a different tack. Carmine Pariante, who has focused for years on the physiological roots of depression, has been using hepatitis C patients to try and understand how immune mediated fatigue and depression arise.

A Model for ME/CFS?

It turns out that when hepatitis C patients are given interferon-alpha (IFN-a) about a third of them develop severe fatigue and/or become depressed. The realization that an immune activating drug was causing fatigue and depression in those who were not fatigued or depressed before was a revelation to the medical community. That led to the idea of sickness behavior, which posits that during an infection, the brain and immune system induce symptoms (flu-like symptoms) that force individuals to isolate themselves, stopping the spread of the infection.

trigger ME/CFS

Did high IL-10 levels jump start ME/CFS?

Since many people with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are by definition caught in a chronic case of “sickness behavior” (a chronic illness state triggered by an infectious event), hepatitis C patients provide the possibility of real insights into ME/CFS.  If researchers can determine how immune activation triggers flu-like symptoms and/or depression in people being treated for hepatitis, they may get clues to what is going on with ME/CFS.

In an action that proved enormously helpful, the group took baseline measures of immune activation prior to the introduction of the interferon drug, and then afterwards. They also assessed psychological factors and metabolites associated with the kynurenine system.

THE STUDY

Psychological Factors Play No Role

In a finding that must have disappointed Trudy Chalder and Mathew Hotopf – who were also part of the study – psychological factors struck out on all counts. Neither a history of depression, stressful life events in the prior six months or early life trauma had any effect on  those who became ill following the IFN-a administration.

Cytokines Not Perpetuating Fatigue

Cytokines weren’t, strictly speaking, perpetuating fatigue in the ill hepatitis C group either. The cytokine levels in both the recovered and the still fatigued hepatitis C patient were similar.

They may, however, have triggered it.

Possible Predisposing Factor Identified

The hepatitis patients who came down with severe fatigue demonstrated increased IL-10 and IL-6 levels early on – very early on.  In fact, hepatitis C patients who became ill had high IL-10 levels BEFORE they received the drug. High levels of IL-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine which has been associated with fatigue, were found early in the illness.

IL-10

High Il-10 levels at baseline may be a biological risk factor for coming down with ME/CFS.

The researchers speculated that patients’ immune systems were primed to take off prior to their receiving the drug – and it was this immune priming which lead them to become ill after taking the drug.

Six months later their IL-10 levels, interestingly, were normal – suggesting that IL-10 had done it’s work quickly and then faded into the background, leaving behind a chronic state of fatigue.

The beauty of this study is that it identifies possibly the earliest blood factor yet – increased IL-10 levels – that may set someone on the path to developing ME/CFS.

While the authors didn’t attempt to explain how these factors produce ME/CFS, some possibilities immediately present themselves. Higher than normal IL-10 levels could suppress one’s ability to quickly clear an infection.  High IL-10 levels and several IL-10 polymorphisms have also been associated with the development of lupus, an autoimmune disorder.

Andrew Miller of Emory University has some ideas of his own.

Miller Time

Andrew Miller, PhD also believes that the ‘sickness behavior’ he finds in hepatitis C patients given IFN-a is similar to what’s happening in ME/CFS.  Miller, however, came to that conclusion, by looking at the brain.

He found reduced activation of the striatum – a part of the basal ganglia that produces dopamine – in fatigued hepatitis C patients and people with ME/CFS. This finding suggested that reduced dopamine levels in ME/CFS may be producing problems with motor activation (physical activity) and fatigue. Indeed, primate studies indicate that immune activation in the presence of low dopamine levels results in enormous fatigue, motor slowing, and depression.

Unrewarding Reward: The Basal Ganglia, Inflammation and Fatigue In Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Another study, taking a deeper look at what happens to a brain on IFN-a, found it took just four hours for IFN-a to produce microstructural changes in the left striatum – changes that were “strikingly correlated” with the development of fatigue. The authors reported that increased levels of lactate and altered pH – two problems found in ME/CFS –  may set the stage for these microstructural abnormalities.

Microstructural Havoc: The Immune System, Fatigue and the Brain – An ME/CFS and FM Scenario

Immune Hypersensitivity Syndrome?

This presents the possibility that infection-produced inflammation could knock out dopamine production permanently, leaving behind – and this may be the important part – a hypersensitized reaction to inflammation. Miller believes that dopamine deprivation causes the basal ganglia to over-respond to inflammatory signals, resulting in the fatigue and other symptoms associated with “sickness behavior”.

That sickness behavior includes mood changes. The British group found that a “biological sensitivity”, or over-reaction to IFN-a, predicted who would come down with depression while on the drug.

When Anthony Cleare of King’s College trashed Montoya’s cytokine findings last year because they didn’t show cytokine elevations, he missed the point that Montoya’s results may have pointed to a possible exquisite sensitization to cytokines in ME/CFS.

Conclusion

It was very good to see an MRC-funded physiological study pan out and get such abundant media coverage.  Thankfully, Lenny Jason is in a good position to follow up on this study result to see if IL-10 is indeed raised in young people who fail to recover from infectious mononucleosis. If that pans out, the first predisposing factor for ME/CFS in the blood will have been found.

That finding will then give us an entry point to determining how ME/CFS comes about. Avindra Nath’s and Derya Unutmaz’s studies of short-duration post-infectious ME/CFS patients would hopefully be able to piggyback on the British finding and begin to unravel the genesis of ME/CFS.

The basal ganglia/hepatitis connection is fascinating because it suggests that the Brits’ hypothesis, that fatigued hepatitis C patients present a good model for ME/CFS, may be correct. Andrew Miller’s and other studies suggests that the brain changes in ME/CFS replicate those of the fatigued hepatitis C patients. Interestingly, they affect the basal ganglia – a part of the brain involved in motor activation (physical movement), learning, cognition and fatigue.

Miller’s hypothesis that inflammation may knock out dopamine production in the basal ganglia resulting in a hypersensitization to immune signals in ME/CFS is compelling. Neuroinflammation has been linked to microglial activation and reduced dopamine levels.  Plus two studies have found reduced basal ganglia activation in FM. One study suggested the basal ganglia could be causing the movement problems in FM.

Spinning Fibromyalgia: Brain Findings Suggest Dopamine May Be Key

Given that the basal ganglia affects movement, fatigue and reward, it would seem to present a rich vein for ME/CFS researchers to mine.  In other fields, researchers would probably be vigorously digging away at a vein with this much potential ore in it, but in ME/CFS researchers are just scratching the surface. Getting  more out of the research community will require that the federal government fulfill its promise to invigorate this field.

In the meantime, it’s good to see the MRC and the Brits, psychiatrists most of them (!), make good on a physiological study, hopefully set the stage for more to come.

Immune Study Adds to Evidence Of Body-Wide Problems With Energy Production in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

Increased expression of CD24 …could thus reflect abnormalities in maintaining appropriate ATP generation (in ME/CFS). The authors

Numerous studies suggest problems with energy production exist in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). The huge energy needs exertion places on the muscles and brain suggest they’re an obvious place for energy production problems to show up. Ramping up to fight off pathogens also places extreme demands on energy production in immune cells. Now comes a study which suggests that energy production problems in a subset of B-cells could be setting people with ME/CFS up for problems with inflammation and autoimmunity.

B-cells and ME/CFS

The first couple of successful Rituximab trials brought renewed interest in the immune cells most effected by the drug – the B-cells. The last, large Rituximab trial unfortunately failed – the drug does not work in ME/CFS – but the Rituximab effort succeeded in other ways.

First off, it brought two creative and dedicated researchers, Oystein Fluge and Olav Mella to the field and energized ME/CFS research in Norway.

B-cell

A B-cell producing antibodies to fight pathogens

Secondly, the B-cells – which play a huge role in immunity (and autoimmunity) – finally got some study in ME/CFS.  Keeping with ME/CFS’s time-honored tradition of falling between the cracks in medicine, several studies found no indication of altered levels of “classical B-cell markers”.

Something unusual did, however, pop up, in an extended analysis, which went well beyond the classical markers usually explored. In 2015 a study found that a molecule called CD24 was highly expressed in a group of B-cells.

CD24 is an adhesion molecule which turns on various signaling networks – it basically tells cells what to do. It is most highly expressed on early stage or transitional B-cells as they emerge from the bone marrow.

During the normal transition from immature to mature metabolically active B-cells, early B-cells are tested again and again for evidence that they may be turning into autoantibody producing cells and many are removed.  Over time, as these cells transform themselves into mature B-cells, the CD24 molecule gradually disappears from their surfaces. High levels of these molecules in people with ME/CFS suggested that a problem with B-cell maturation might be present.

Since antibody producing B-cells play a major role in fighting off infections, having a bunch of immature B-cells hanging around the immune systems of ME/CFS patients could constitute a problem.

Plus there’s evidence that the CD24 molecule plays a role in several diseases.  CD24 polymorphisms (genetic variants of CD24) have been associated with increased risk for and accelerated progression of autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematous. CD24 can also be over‐expressed in many cancers, including B cell lymphomas.

In short, it’s not a molecule you want to ignore.

Energy Production Problems in the Immune System

Front Immunol. 2018 Oct 22;9:2421. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2018.02421. eCollection 2018. CD24 Expression and B Cell Maturation Shows a Novel Link With Energy Metabolism: Potential Implications for Patients With Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Mensah FFK1, Armstrong CW2, Reddy V1, Bansal AS3, Berkovitz S4, Leandro MJ1, Cambridge G1.

In a 2018 study, a UK and Australian group took B-cells from ME/CFS patients and healthy controls, stimulated them and then monitored what happened.  As before, they found an increased frequency of CD24+ B-cells in ME/CFS patients.

What made the increased frequency of these naïve CD24 packed B cells in ME/CFS so interesting, though, was their mode of energy production.

Examining the metabolism of the ME/CFS patients’ cells, the researchers found a “strong(ly) positive” association between the amount of glycolysis and lactate produced and the expression of CD24 molecules on ME/CFS patients’ B-cells. Put another way, the more glycolysis was used to produce energy and the greater the lactate production (a by-product of glycolysis) – the more the CD24 molecule showed up on ME/CFS patient’s B-cells.

energy production me-CFS

Findings suggesting that a body-wide problem with energy production are present in ME/CFS are piling up.

Lower levels of mitochondria in these cells suggested one reason ME/CFS patients’ B-cells may be stuck in this mode.  Not surprisingly, the authors found this more prominent B-cell subset in ME/CFS was also largely unresponsive to stimulation.

That suggested that not only do the energy problems in ME/CFS extend to the immune cells but that they could be impacting immune functioning – in this case by keeping ME/CFS B-cells in a naïve state – that may be associated with disease.

Plus increased levels of the CD24 molecule have also been associated with a damaging state called “senescence”.  Instead of undergoing a process called autophagy during which a cell’s contents are safely recycled, during senescence – which is often associated with aging –  damaged mitochondria cause cells to slowly deteriorate while producing scads of pro-inflammatory factors.

An exercise physiologist, Graham Salmun, recently reported that his exercise study results suggest senescence is indeed occurring in ME/CFS.  He believes problems with aerobic energy production are a) impairing ME/CFS patients ability to produce energy and b) creating a senescent state that is causing chronic inflammation.

Anaerobic Thresholds, Fatty Acid Problems and Autophagy: Dr. Klimas’s Exercise Study

Conclusion

This study provided an intriguing metabolic snapshot of the immune system. The fact that increased expression of the CD24 molecule has been associated with autoimmune disorders and cancer makes the CD24 finding in ME/CFS interesting, but the metabolic connection the researchers found may be more important.

Their findings suggest that the same problems producing energy found elsewhere in ME/CFS may also be occurring in their immune cells.  Plus the findings suggest that a state of senescence, chronic inflammation and cellular unresponsiveness may be present as well. The possible penalties of having an immune system with a broken aerobic energy production system could go beyond fatigue and pain and extend to problems with autoimmunity, and perhaps in rare cases, cancer.

Studies finding an increased reliance on anaerobically produced energy in the muscles, the brain, in neutrophils and now in some of the B-cells all suggest that a body-wide disruption in energy production may be present in ME/CFS.

 

Could “Junk DNA” Be Causing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis?

Carmen Scheibenbogen

Dr. Scheibenbogen continues to successfully plough new ground

It seems like every time you turn around another part of the genome pops up. It’s amazing how far our knowledge of the human genome has progressed since the Human Genome Project was completed just 15 years ago. Thankfully the small band of researchers involved in chronic fatigue syndrome / myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) seem to be keeping up with the latest findings.

Dr. Scheibenbogen seems intent on ploughing new ground. First she re-energized the search for autoantibodies in ME/CFS. Then she examined the effectiveness of a promising treatment called immunoadsorption. With her latest study she and her colleagues at Institute for Medical Immunology, Charité-Universitätsmedizin in Berlin became the first in this disease to examine a peculiar part of our genome called long non-coding RNA’s.

Hope for an ME/CFS Autoimmune Subset: A German Researcher Steps Forward

When most people think of RNA they’re probably thinking of the messenger RNA (mRNA) which carries the genetic code from the DNA in the nucleus of our cells to ribosomes. The ribosomes then translate the mRNA into proteins – which then do the work of our cells.

pre mRNA

pre-mRNA -(Wikipedia—httpsupload.wikimedia.orgwikipediacommonsthumbaa4Pre-mRNA-1ysv-tubes)

Not all RNA produces proteins, however. Formerly termed “junk DNA“, non-coding RNA’s – RNA’s which do not encode proteins –  make up a substantial part of our genome.  (They lack the “reading frames” necessary for the process of translation from RNA to protein to begin). Long non-coding RNA’s (lncRNA) are particularly long pieces of RNA (>200 nucleotides long) which do not encode proteins.

While their presence has been known for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the first hint of the role they play in regulating gene expression and epigenetics  appeared. Research since then has shown that lncRNA’s play an important role modulating the activity of transcription factors which turn the expression of our genes on and off.

Epigenetics –  heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes in the underlying DNA sequence – is all the rage now. The ability of infections and other stressors to turn genes on or off via epigenetics presents an intriguing explanation for how an infection could result in ME/CFS. Because lncRNA’s can regulate the epigenetic process, they could provide even more basic insights into how ME/CFS began.

LncRNA’s can also catalyze biological reactions and respond to cellular signals. Their extreme flexibility allows them to interact with proteins, DNA and RNA to affect many physiological processes. One review stated they, “can impact almost all physiological functions.” Another review called them, “a new and crucial layer of biological regulation”.

They’re certainly providing a fresh look at complex diseases. Search for long non-coding RNA’s in PubMed and you’ll get a long list of diseases they may be implicated in. A recent review of the role lncRNA’s may play in cancer called them, “new players in the old battle against cancer”. Some regulate mitochondrial synthesis and energy production.  Pathogens can induce the production of lncRNA’s in humans that then promote viral survival.

It’s become increasing apparent that they can play a role in fundamental developmental processes that can produce chronic disease states. One review called them “arguably the hottest area of RNA research” today.  Still much remains to be learned about the roles they play.

“Remarkable” Finding

The expression signature of very long non‑coding RNA in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Chin‑An Yang1,2,3,4 , Sandra Bauer5, Yu‑Chen Ho3, Franziska Sotzny5, Jan‑Gowth Chang1,3,4† and Carmen Scheibenbogen. Transl Med (2018) 16:231 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-018-1600-x

In this study – the first of its kind in ME/CFS – Dr. Scheibenbogen examined the expression of ten very large lncRNAs (> 5 kb) involved in immune regulation, or which influence genes involved in the stress response and/or metabolic and neurologic processes.

The authors were clearly surprised by their findings.  After all, they’d simply taken ten lncRNA’s that they thought, based on findings in other diseases, might play a role in ME/CFS.

In a finding they called “remarkable”, the expression of those ten lncRNA’s was enough to distinguish ME/CFS patients from healthy controls. In fact, the expression of any two of three of these lncRNA’s (NTT, MIAT and EMX2OS) was all that was needed to pick out most ME/CFS patients.

Diagnositic accuracy

The elevated expression of just three lncRNA’s was enough to identify most ME/CFS patients

Then seeking to understand if the chronic illness state present in ME/CFS could be turning these lncRNA’s on by exposing them to biological stressors known to be present in ME/CFS. They found that punishing cell lines with oxidative stress did, in fact, increase the expression of the lncRNA’s. Subjecting the cell lines to a viral stressor also increased expression of one of them. Doing it increased the expression of a gene associated with chronic inflammation and blood vessel dysfunction – two problems that are believed to be present in ME/CFS.

ME/CFS seems to revel in producing findings that baffle researchers and this study was no exception. The enhanced expression of one lncRNA (EMX2OS) was something of a mystery as it is rarely found in the cells (peripheral blood mononuclear cells) they examined. It is, however, increased in brain hypoxia; i.e. low oxygen levels in the brain – which Dr. Shungu’s studies suggest may be present in ME/CFS.

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Finally, the authors noted that it took just three lncRNA’s (NTT, MIAT, and EMX20s) to do what it took Kerr 88 genes and Naviaux 8-13 metabolites to do – differentiate ME/CFS patients from healthy controls. One wonders if Scheibenbogen’s examination of lncRNA’s is getting at some basic components of ME/CFS.

Treatment Implications

No direct treatment implications were mentioned. In the short-term they’re viewed more as providing excellent diagnostic biomarkers. For instance, lncRNA’s are now being used to one of most difficult diagnostic scenarios of all – prostate cancer. They’re now being used in men with high PSA levels and negative biopsy results.

Direct treatments based on lncRNA’s are probably years away but should be noted that lncRNA’s are a very active area of research for a good reason: turning down their expression could turn off basic processes that cause disease. The author of a recent study which found that LncRNA’s play a role regulate fat metabolism reported:

“We are still in the early stages of figuring out how lincRNAs function in human disease, but what used to be considered ‘junk’ in the genome may actually point us towards the jackpot of developing effective therapeutic approaches for cardiometabolic diseases,” Jennie Lin, MD, MTR

This new exploration of ME/CFS patient’s genomes further substantiates the notion that ME/CFS is a disease of immune dysregulation. Given the study’s strong results surely more lncRNA study in ME/CFS is on the way.