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In an effort to find the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, researchers have identified 17 immune molecules whose concentrations in patients’ blood correlate with disease severity.

Why it matters:

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is poorly understood and notoriously difficult to diagnose or treat, and some medical professionals question whether it is psychological or biological in nature. One area of research has been cytokines — molecules the immune system uses to communicate while combating foreign invaders in the body.


“For many years medical scientists have speculated that the symptoms of CFS might be caused by cytokines,” said Dr. Anthony Komaroff, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital not involved in the study. “Past studies have shown high levels of many cytokines in people with CFS, but it was not clear that these high levels were causing symptoms.”

The nitty-gritty:

Dr. Jose Montoya, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford University, and his colleagues looked at cytokines in the blood serum of 192 people with CFS and 392 healthy controls. They deployed a system called Luminex, which used a combination of microbeads filled with cytokine-capturing antibodies and lasers to pull out 51 different cytokines from serum samples and quantify how much of each cytokine was present.

Overall, people with CFS only had two cytokines that significantly differed in quantity compared to healthy controls. However, when researchers divided people with CFS into mild, moderate, and severe groups, they found that the levels of 17 cytokines increased with increasing severity of the disorder. Thirteen of these cytokines were proinflammatory, meaning they cause inflammation in the body. The results were published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


“It’s giving us an idea about the type of inflammation that these patients are experiencing, so it validates the disease … it’s like, gosh, the patients were right all along,” explained Montoya.

But keep in mind:

The study established an association between proinflammatory cytokines and CFS, but not cause and effect: More research is needed to understand the relationship between the two.

You should know:

Researchers see this helping in two ways. Montoya and colleagues hope it will help other researchers develop CFS treatments that target these proinflammatory cytokines. They also think it could be a useful diagnostic test. Part of the team is now working on transforming the technique so it can be used to help diagnose CFS in a clinical setting.  

What they’re saying:

Columbia University neuroimmunology specialist Dr. Mady Hornig, who wasn’t involved in the study, praised it for providing “critical support for a biologic basis in a disorder that is so often maligned as being psychological,” and highlighting the complexity of immune dysregulation that occurs in patients with CFS.

Komaroff said it “supports the theory that cytokines might be a cause of symptoms.”

The bottom line:

A number of proinflammatory cytokines correlate with CFS severity, but more research is needed to figure out if these cytokines cause symptoms, and how they can be used to develop better diagnostic and treatment techniques.

  • 23 years ago I was diagnosed with strep induced epiglottitis. I was in the hospital for approximately one week. After coming home, I just never regained my normal energy levels. I could no longer ride my bike 10 miles on my lunch hour or even walk around the block. After many doctors visits, I was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. I could no longer work. I had to go on disability through my employer and have been on it ever since. I lost both my home and my way of life. I now have no social life whatsoever and have had to move in with my son and his family. I was very excited to learn of the recent breakthrough that Stanford researchers have found a new marker in the blood for this disease. I’m hoping that the research will continue and provide some relief for this condition in the near future.

  • I’m so happy to hear that there is ongoing research in this field as my daughter has suffered for many years now with CFS. I do hope there is some relief in the near future for her. Her lifestyle now is so very limited.

  • Man, at this point in my life, after suffering from ME/CFS for 30 years, if they came up with a cure I am pretty sure I would have a complete meltdown and cry for a week lol. I would definitely get over it after a week though. I wonder if we would have to super careful at the beginning or if we could just go nuts. So many things I would be planning ASAP! Never thought anything like this would happen in my lifetime. So hopeful!!!

    • Microbiome. I bet more than half of all the sufferers of an auto immune condition, estimated to be some 50 million in the US alone, have what I’ve labeled as MTMDTDI – medicine triggered microbiome dysbiosis triggered degenerative inflammation.

      I believe The Great Assumption, a cornerstone of modern medicine, is the root of the problem: it’s conveniently assumed that a course of medication has zero to negligible impact on the gut microbiome and if there is an impact then the gut microbiome will recover on it’s own. Clinical research indicates that this assumption is false but it’s going to be decades, or never if Big Pharma has it’s way, before that information trickles down to the exam room.

      You don’t have to be defecating blood and diarrhea to suffer from microbiome dysbiosis.

      My personal observation indicates that the degradation was incremental and persistent over many years until the inflammation – primarily joint and muscle pain, fatigue and brain fog – became disabling. Ibuprofen, a common drug with antibiotic properties, was the pallet of bricks that broke the camel’s back. But in the last year I’ve made a tremendous amount of progress by patching my microbiome back to health with prebiotics, a variety of broad spectrum OTC probiotics and more recently probiotic foods like raw milk, kefir and fermented vegetables. My microbiome isn’t OEM (original equipment manufacturer) but the inflammation has subsided to a great degree and I can eat pretty much a normal diet again.

      Google ‘microbiome chronic fatigue syndrome’. That’s a good place to start. I have lots more info that may help you if you’re interested.

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