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Fibromyalgia Researchers Look for Brain Function Similarities in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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By Healthwatch • • January 1, 1999

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have begun a study that seeks to find similarities in the brain’s response to pain stimuli between patients with fibromyalgia and those with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Dr. Laurence Bradley, professor of medicine and a pain management specialist at the university, has been studying blood flow in the brains of fibromyalgia patients in an effort to understand how their brains respond to acute pain.

They’ve documented reduced blood flow to areas of the brain that deal with pain, and now they want to use the same methods to find out if there is similar brain activity in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome who do not meet the criteria for fibromyalgia.

“Our hope is that this may give some information about whether there is a similar biological process occurring that’s involved in abnormal pain perception in both of these disorders,” Dr. Bradley said. “That can, in turn, give us some clues as to why there is such a sensitivity to pain in these patients. Looking at brain function is one way of trying to better understand what accounts for these abnormal perceptions.”

Cerebral blood flow is a marker for synaptic (nerve signal) activity in the brain, Dr. Bradley explained. When a structure in the brain becomes very active in response to a sensory stimulus, it’s going to require more oxygen, which is carried by the blood, so researchers expect to see greater blood flow in structures that are supposed to be processing sensory information.

They’re looking for structures that don’t respond in people with fibromyalgia and/or CFS as they do in healthy people. One focus could be the thalamus, for example, through which the nerve fibers that carry sensory information up the spinal cord enter the brain. In healthy people the thalamus responds to painful events, but in some other chronic pain syndromes, it’s been found that the thalamus doesn’t respond normally but instead has what Dr. Bradley called an “inhibited response.” That’s the kind of abnormality they’ll be looking for in the brains of people with fibromylagia and CFS.

The Alabama study is not related to other recent studies that have looked at neurally mediated hypotension (brain signals regarding blood pressure) or overall low blood volume as a source of the fatigue experienced by CFS patients.

Patients for the three-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, are being drawn only from the university medical center’s patient population to maintain a consistency in the diagnosis of the two disorders.

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