Dr VanElzakker: two new ME/CFS studies at Harvard

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#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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Everyone here [at Harvard] recognizes that it’s a neuroimmune condition and approaches it that way,” VanElzakker said.[/pullquote]

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.”

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5 thoughts on “Dr VanElzakker: two new ME/CFS studies at Harvard”

  1. First time I’ve heard a Dr say that. Thank you for helping us instead of saying it’s “psychogenic”. Not even a crazy person would want to live with this disease. M.E. has been devastating and debilitating for me for over 20yrs. Whats exciting for me now is that you mentioned the autonomic nervous system. One of the very first Drs I saw thought whatever was going on had to do with our autonomic nervous system. Good for you and I hope you get the funds to continue.

  2. Thank you, Dr. VanElzakker for your comments on lack of humility in the medical profession!
    We don’t seem to learn from history. One of my old psychology texts published in 1976, lists several conditions as being “caused and maintained primarily by psychological and emotional factors rather than organic ones.” The list of disorders includes: “some cases of arthritis, bronchial asthma, heart attacks, hypertension, peptic ulcers, hyperthyroidism, and MS”.
    Current general knowledge tells us these conditions all have organic causes, not psychological ones. And yet, in 1976, mental health care workers claimed them for their own.
    If you find these diseases on MedlinePlus, there is no mention of them being psychiatric illnesses. There is mention peptic ulcers are caused by a bacteria; that hyperthyroidism is caused by an autoimmune disorder, and speculation that MS is as well. Sound familiar? People with these conditions are hopefully no longer blamed for their illness.
    Thank you again, Dr. VanElzakker for pointing out to others that they are leaping to conclusions without any scientific basis.

  3. I cannot tell you how brilliant it is to hear a doctor saying this. That is a big break through. It is a terrible thing not to be believed.
    I was depressed for a short spell in my twenties, but am not at all now. There is something so fundamental that happens after activity of any kind, mental, physical, even emotional, that leads to such wipe out. My brain is unable to process the simplest things, hear what is said, read, type, or allow me to do anything physical. Resting is the only option. My spine and brain feel inflamed.
    Thank you and here’s wishing you loads of funding and support and success.

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