A chemical signature of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome suggests the disease may be caused by the body going into a semi-hibernation state, a study has said.
Around 250,000 British people are affected by CFS, also known as ME.
The disease causes the carrier to suffer from extreme exhaustion, and can strike suddenly, with no clear cause and few effective treatments.
Suggested explanations range from bacterial or viral infections to psychiatric issues.
In a previous study, scientists said the best treatments for ME were cognitive behaviour therapy or exercise, but these were criticised by sufferers for trivialising their condition and ignoring possible biological causes.
New research has revealed a chemical signature of the disease in the blood of those with ME. Scientists from the University of California claim it is similar to a state found in nematode worms called dauer, where the metabolism adjusts to a difficult environment by slowing down.
This hibernation state enables existence, but not much more.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said that dauer “permits survival and persistence under conditions of environmental stress, but at the cost of severely curtailed function and quality of life.”
The aim of the study was to find a simple method of diagnosing ME. There is currently no blood test so doctors must judge whether a patient’s lifestyle and behaviour fit the criteria.
Scientists monitored 85 people’s blood plasma for metabolites – by-products of the chemical reactions in cells, including the breakdown of molecules to release energy – and more than half of those screened had been diagnosed with ME.
Robert Naviaux, from the University of California, San Diego, found 20 markers of the disease which matched those expected in invertebrates in the dauer state.
This correlation suggests ME could be a response to the environment, making the body mistakenly enter a state designed for adaptation in extreme conditions, the study said.
Similarly, just as allergies are overactive immune responses, ME could be an overactive response of the metabolic system.
“All animals have ways of responding to changes in environmental conditions that threaten survival,” Professor Naviaux said.
“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.”
Other scientists welcomed the research, but cautioned that it was too early to say what was going on. Andrew McIntosh, from the University of Edinburgh, said: “It is difficult to know whether the changes reported are a cause or an effect of CFS.”
The study was found in The Telegraph and published by Telegraph reporter.