Study likens chronic fatigue syndrome to hibernation
Research finds biomarkers in CFS sufferers that present a ‘metabolic signature’ similar to that of animals in hibernation.
Medical knowledge is sometimes slow to catch up with medical conditions. Just think, up until the late 19th century we thought that things like cholera and the plague were caused by a poisonous mist (a miasma) perfumed with the particles of rotting things. There are still any number of illnesses that we don’t really understand; and when causes are unknown, sufferers are often told that their symptoms are psychological.
Such is often the case with the devastating condition known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, more popularly called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). According to conservative estimates, 2.5 million people in the United States suffer from it, but no cause has ever been pinpointed, reports Ariana Eunjung Cha from the Washington Post. This mysterious condition is characterized by severe fatigue and other symptoms like headaches and memory problems.
Many CFS patients are frustrated by the skepticism they encounter; but now research may shed some light on the cryptic condition. Cha writes:
A new study raises the extraordinary possibility that humans may be able to put themselves into a kind of hibernation state as well – but in a way that hurts us rather than helps us.
Other creatures on the planet, like bats and snakes, have the special ability to go into power-save mode. Notes Cha, “Their temperature drops, metabolism slows down and oxygen consumption is limited to minimal levels. This basic adaptation helps them survive the harshest of environmental conditions.”
What if something along those lines was happening to people with CFS?
The new study was led by Robert K. Naviaux from the University of California at San Diego, and was based on the metabolites in the bodies of people with CFS and a control group of people without the condition. Reports Cha:
Naviaux looked at 612 different metabolites, which are intermediate substances such as glucose produced by cells as they break down larger molecules and produce energy. They found that 80 percent of the metabolites were lower in those with CFS. They also found what they described as “abnormalities” in 20 of the metabolic pathways.
The researchers likened it to the “dauer state” in nematode worms. When faced with stress like starvation, overcrowding or other toxic environments, a significant slowing of kicks in as a survival mechanism.
The researchers say that this would make sense for people with CFS, who often notice the condition after a trigger event like an infection or chemical exposure. In these cases, the body might be shutting down to protect itself, but never quite snaps out of it. More from Cha:
Naviaux described this theory of humans having a cell-danger response in more depth: “Historical changes in the seasonal availability of calories, microbial pathogens, water stress and other environmental stresses have ensured that we all have inherited hundreds to thousands of genes that our ancestors used to survive all of these conditions.”
When faced with adversity, cells go into defensive mode, he explained. “In most cases, this strategy is effective and normal metabolism is restored after a few days or weeks of illness, and recovery is complete after a few weeks or months.” But with CFS, it’s that possible the body got “stuck” in that state.
Naviaux said that although he doesn't think that CFS is actually hibernation, per se, he said the “metabolic signature” is similar to that of animals in hibernation.
Others will now need to replicate the results and validate them; doing so could be a game-changer for those with CFS, says Ronald Davis. And he would know. As head of the Genome Technology Center at Stanford University he is not only one of the founding scientists of the Human Genome Project, but his once-vibrant and ambitious son now suffers CFS so severely he is unable to walk, talk, or even eat.
“What they found is that there may be an ancient pathway, and maybe in humans it’s not working very well.” Davis told The Post. “Or maybe people have gotten themselves too far down into the state and can’t get back out.”
Regardless, having a possible biomarker for diagnosing the condition would certainly ease the skepticism that CFS patients face – and having a direction in which to work on treatments, ones that may be relatively simple, could help to restore the lives of the millions of people who suffer from this mysterious illness. It would be nice to see the medical knowledge catch up here, and it looks like it's headed in the right direction.