New technology could help doctors ID chronic fatigue syndrome in patients

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Endurance was never a problem for Ann Kavanagh-Kramer. For years she competed in long-distance runs from California to Europe.

Then, at age 30 her health suddenly changed.

"That was the hardest time, when I couldn't get out of bed," Kavanagh-Kramer said. "At times I was crawling to use the bathroom."

She went from doctor to doctor for months searching for the cause of her fatigue. Without a diagnosis she would eventually undergo a battery of tests just to prove she was sick-enough to be placed on disability.

"I was called a hypochondriac in the early days. I was told I needed to go to physical therapy," she said.

Cavanaugh-Kramer finally turned to doctor Jose Montoya at Stanford's Chronic Fatigue Clinic. He diagnosed her condition as chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS. He says unlike other diseases, there is no blood test for CFS. While patients can experience debilitating fatigue for years, some doctors are still skeptical that it's a legitimate condition.

"One of the most important moments with new patients here at Stanford is when we say we do believe them. Some break down and cry," Montoya said.

A new breakthrough could soon change perceptions of chronic fatigue syndrome, and perhaps give doctors a tool to identify, and diagnose it.

Doctor Michael Zeineh and his team used sophisticated imaging techniques to compare the brains of CFS patients with a control group.

What they found were three consistent abnormalities in the scans of chronic fatigue patients, including a pathway that connects different parts of the brain.

"And people who had worse fatigue, this measurement was more abnormal," Zeineh. "So the third thing we found was this track connects two points in the brain, and we found those two point in the brain connected by this track were also abnormal."

New imaging of people's brains who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome shows abnormalities, which could help diagnose other patients.

He says the abnormalities would not have been picked up on a normal MRI -- and it's still unclear what caused them. With targeted imaging, the Stanford team is hoping the abnormalities can eventually be used as bio-markers to confirm the diagnosis of CFS.

Cavanaugh-Kramer, who's now being treated with anti-viral drugs, says the early diagnosis would help remove the frustration many patients feel.

"If it's legitimacy we'll take it," she said. "It's on the first step for us. We needed to know how to diagnose it, then learn how to treat it."
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