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Similar Brain Variables Observed in Long-Term Covid and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Study Finds


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Protracted COVID and ME/CFS appear to affect older parts of the brain with intriguing similarities.

Using a high-resolution version of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers in Australia have shown that brainstem regions of 10 ME/CFS patients and 8 “long-term COVID” patients are significantly larger than those of 10 healthy individuals.

The brain stem connects the spinal cord to the largest part of the brain, the cerebrum. From top to bottom, the trunk consists of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata.

The word pons, which means bridge in Latin, is involved in unconscious processes such as sleep and wake cycles, as well as in regulating the breathing rate and processing pain.

Meanwhile, the medulla oblongata connects to the “little brain” or hindbrain, the cerebellum, through a series of cord-like nerve pathways. The cerebellum is located above the brain stem and helps coordinate balance and movement.

In the current study, the larger the brainstem sections, the more likely patients were to have difficulty breathing.

Therefore, as researchers at Griffith University write, “brainstem damage may contribute to respiratory symptoms in ME/CFS and ‘long-term Covid’.”

This is a small study, but it is the first time that it demonstrates a neural overlap between ME/CFS and “prolonged COVID”.

The findings may help explain many of the common symptoms of these two conditions, such as blurred consciousness, dizziness, headaches, unrefreshing sleep, shortness of breath, body aches, fatigue after exercise, and abnormal heart rhythms and blood pressure.

Since scientists reported the first COVID patients in 2020, experts and patients alike have pointed out how similar SARS-CoV-2 viral fallouts are to ME/CFS symptoms.

Many suspect that the two diseases are related or even caused by the same factors, meaning that research into one could help us understand and treat the other.

In fact, studies show that between 13 and 58% of people with long-term exposure to the new coronavirus meet the diagnostic requirements for ME/CFS. However, since there is no consensus on how to diagnose these conditions, these numbers are uncertain.

At the moment, scientists do not know enough about either condition to say anything for sure. This is due not so much to the “mysterious” nature of these diseases, but to the complete lack of research.

Even before COVID caught our attention, the health burden of ME/CFS in the United States was estimated to be twice that of HIV/AIDS. However, it is the most underfunded disease on the US National Institutes of Health books based on its relative harm, and it receives 7% of funding compared to other similar diseases.

To this day, no one really knows what causes ME/CFS, how to effectively diagnose it, or how to treat it. Many cases may be associated with a viral infection or a weakened immune system, while others are of completely unknown origin.

In comparison, “long Covid” comes from a known virus, and researchers still don’t understand how the pathogen causes such damage to the body and mind.

More recently, studies have shown that even people with mild Covid have significant changes in the brain, such as inflammation. And in autopsy studies of those who died from the Covid-19 virus, the brain appeared to age.

An analysis based on data from the British Biobank shows that brainstem volume often increases in those who have contracted Covid.

Since the 1990s, researchers have also used MRI to study the brains of ME/CFS patients. Compared to healthy people, unexplained volume changes in certain areas of the brain are common, with the brainstem being one of the most prominent areas.

The advent of the latest technology is allowing scientists to take a closer look at this part of the brain than ever before.

In their preliminary study, scientists from Australia found no significant difference in brainstem volumes between people with ME/CFS and people with “long-term Covid”.

The authors of the study concluded that “the brainstem regulates respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and neurological processes, and its disruption may explain the overlapping symptoms of ME/CFS and ‘long Covid’.”

They added that “this increase in volume may reflect edema resulting from inflammatory responses, neurodegeneration and/or viral invasion.”

More research will be needed to determine which of these pathways leads to brainstem volume hyperplasia and whether these pathways are similar or different in ME/CFS and COVID patients.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Source: Science Alert

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