Moving Toward Answers in ME/CFS

Woman in bed

Thinkstock/Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

Imagine going to work or school every day, working out at the gym, spending time with family and friends—basically, living your life in a full and vigorous way. Then one day, you wake up, feeling sick. A bad cold maybe, or perhaps the flu. A few days pass, and you think it should be over—but it’s not, you still feel achy and exhausted. Now imagine that you never get better— plagued by unrelenting fatigue not relieved by sleep. Any exertion just makes you worse. You are forced to leave your job or school and are unable to participate in any of your favorite activities; some days you can’t even get out of bed. The worst part is that your doctors don’t know what is wrong and nothing seems to help.

Unfortunately, this is not fiction, but reality for at least a million Americans—who suffer from a condition that carries the unwieldy name of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), a perplexing disease that biomedical research desperately needs to unravel [1]. Very little is currently known about what causes ME/CFS or its biological basis [2]. Among the many possibilities that need to be explored are problems in cellular metabolism and changes in the immune system.

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Rare Disease Mystery: Nodding Syndrome May Be Linked to Parasitic Worm

Rural Uganda village gathering

Caption: Village in the East Africa nation of Uganda
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the early 1960s, reports began to surface that some children living in remote villages in East Africa were suffering mysterious episodes of “head nodding.” The condition, now named nodding syndrome, is recognized as a rare and devastating form of epilepsy. There were hints that the syndrome might be caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted through the bites of blackflies. But no one had been able to tie the parasitic infection directly to the nodding heads.

Now, NIH researchers and their international colleagues think they’ve found the missing link. The human immune system turns out to be a central player. After analyzing blood and cerebrospinal fluid of kids with nodding syndrome, they detected a particular antibody at unusually high levels [1]. Further studies suggest the immune system ramps up production of that antibody to fight off the parasite. The trouble is those antibodies also react against a protein in healthy brain tissue, apparently leading to progressive cognitive dysfunction, neurological deterioration, head nodding, and potentially life-threatening seizures.

The findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, have important implications for the treatment and prevention of not only nodding syndrome, but perhaps other autoimmune-related forms of epilepsy. As people in the United States and around the globe today observe the 10th anniversary of international Rare Disease Day, this work provides yet another example of how rare disease research can shed light on more common diseases and fundamental aspects of human biology.

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