#MEAction recently interviewed Dr. Michael VanElzakker regarding two, new studies on ME/CFS.
The first aims to discover evidence of increased activity where the sensory vagus nerve enters the brainstem – a subtle effect that requires some intricate scans.
In order to measure the activity in the vagus nerve, Dr. VanElzakker will use a scanner that is capable of concurrently performing two different types of scans: PET and MRI. A PET scan allows researchers to pick up very subtle differences in biological function, while an MRI captures more detailed anatomy.
The study is well underway: Dr. VanElzakker has scanned six patients and two controls so far. It’s a small study, VanElzakker revealed, with the hope of using the results to apply for a grant down the line. Right now, the pilot study is funded solely through Massachusetts General Hospital / Harvard Medical School’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.
“Everyone here [at Harvard] recognizes that it’s a neuroimmune condition and approaches it that way,” VanElzakker said.
The second study, still in the grant-application stage, will be a post-exercise test, using MRI to pick up the activity of different metabolites in patients’ brains. VanElzakker plans to use a 7-Tesla scanner – a very high strength scanner – in order to produce especially high-quality images; he also hopes to perform autonomic testing.
Dr. VanElzakker is basing his study design off of previous exercise challenge studies. He hopes to replicate their findings, as well as uncover new evidence about autonomic dysfunction and post-exertional metabolic changes in the brains of ME patients.
Dr. VanElzakker’s position about ME’s biomedical nature is unequivocal. “People at teaching hospitals are following the research,” he said. “Everyone here recognizes that it’s a neuroimmune condition and approaches it that way.”
“When a condition is ‘medically unexplained,’ some seem to assume that means that it must be psychogenic. We would say that if medicine cannot yet explain something, perhaps the fault lies with medicine,” he added. “There are plenty of things [in biology] we aren’t able to image, yet. We aren’t able to measure this thing with rudimentary scans and blood tests.” VanElzakker laughs. “We don’t have a test yet, therefore it’s psychogenic? That reveals a tragic lack of humility about what we know and what we don’t know.”