Cognitive neuroscientists search for cause of chronic fatigue syndrome

Jordyn Holliday and Carol Hughes
April 06, 2017

A team of researchers from the Center for Community Research at DePaul are on a mission to better understand why the brain is less efficient in people with chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease that many patients refer to by its original name, myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME. CFS is characterized by extreme muscle exhaustion, cognitive deficits, as well as unrefreshing sleep. The innovative approach utilized by the research team may lead to important answers about this disease.

Using electrical neuroimaging, research scientist Marcie Zinn, senior research associate Mark Zinn and professor Leonard Jason, are working to determine the reasons for the brain problems commonly seen in this disease. Their research could potentially lead to improved diagnoses and understanding of the disease, which has debilitated more than 17 million people worldwide.

"People become traumatized by a debilitating illness and then become traumatized again by the reaction to them by people who don't understand," says Jason, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul. "This research will examine biological issues involved in this illness."

In addition to finding the source of many chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms, their research focuses on debunking the stigma surrounding the disease.

"We know that different regions of the brain have to work together to process information, and problems in those networks can produce many symptoms in patients," Marcie Zinn says. "These brain problems in CFS could be the result of bad and/or slow connections." 

EEG versus functional MRI

In order to gather data for their current study, the research team analyzes responses from online surveys and assesses results from individual 30-minute electroencephalograms - or EEGs, a test that measures brain waves.

"With the approach we use, we can see the brain at the millisecond level, which is 1,000th of 1 second. That's the timeframe your brain works in. In contrast, there is about a 2 or 3 second delay with the functional MRI," Marcie Zinn says.

A key difference in these two methods is that the quantitative EEG looks directly at the brain cells, while the functional MRI looks indirectly, she notes.

The researchers' hope is that their work will help gain a better sense of the possible causes of chronic fatigue syndrome. Physicians, psychologists and other health care professionals then may be better equipped to target treatments to help correct deficits.

Mark Zinn also compared their quantitative EEG approach to social networks.

"We're studying interactions in the system of the brain," he says. "We are studying relationships between neurons."

Examining the brain on a systems level adds a major advantage to the research approach, Mark Zinn adds.

"Our focus is to link patients' signs and symptoms to functional systems in the brain, which contrasts with traditional attempts to link patients' symptoms to brain lesions and other physiological abnormalities," he says.

The researchers' innovative systems level approach appeared in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback in 2016.

Center for Community Research

Jason said DePaul's Center for Community Research has been researching and addressing chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis for 25 years.

"We have had years of experience in this area, and the nature of our work at DePaul provides us unique opportunities to better understand its etiology and pathophysiology," he says.

The results of this latest research may shed light on how brain function relates to the symptoms confronted by patients. It involves studying patients and controls. Those interested in participating or who have further questions should contact Marcie Zinn at mzinn1@depaul.edu or 877-963-8763.

The mission of DePaul University's Center for Community Research is to provide permanent, dedicated space for externally funded research projects and to house research projects of colleagues associated with the work from psychology and related disciplines. The center is a setting where applied researchers can have an infrastructure to pursue their research. Additional information is online at http://csh.depaul.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/ccr.