Are B-Cells to Blame for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? | Discover magazine | May 2013

From Discover magazine, May 2013. Story by Jill Neimark.

The ravages of chronic fatigue syndrome may be the result of an overlooked but essential part of the body’s own immune system.


Myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, is a perplexing disorder that may seem more like a voodoo hex than an illness. Patients might lie bedridden in dark rooms, in chronic pain, often with multiple neurological symptoms like muscle pain, sweating and dizziness.

Doctors have targeted various causes, from herpes viruses to retroviruses to depression. But a surprising new explanation suggests that the disorder is an autoimmune disease of the nervous system caused by overactive B-cells, which are normally responsible for churning out pathogen-killing antibodies.

In 2011, two Norwegian oncologists, Oystein Fluge and Olav Mella of Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen, along with colleagues, studied 30 people diagnosed with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS). Each received either a placebo or a highly specialized chemotherapy drug called rituximab, which rapidly and selectively depletes B-cells. After 12 months, 10 of 15 patients on the drug significantly improved; only two of 15 on the placebo improved…

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