Frontier studies on fatigue, autonomic nerve dysfunction, and sleep-rhythm disorder
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a disabling disorder, characterized by persistent or relapsing fatigue. Recent studies have detected a decrease in cortical grey matter volume in patients with CFS, but it is unclear whether this cerebral atrophy constitutes a cause or a consequence of the disease. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective behavioural intervention for CFS, which combines a rehabilitative approach of a graded increase in physical activity with a psychological approach that addresses thoughts and beliefs about CFS which may impair recovery. Here, we test the hypothesis that cerebral atrophy may be a reversible state that can ameliorate with successful CBT. We have quantified cerebral structural changes in 22 CFS patients that underwent CBT and 22 healthy control participants. At baseline, CFS patients had significantly lower grey matter volume than healthy control participants. CBT intervention led to a significant improvement in health status, physical activity and cognitive performance. Crucially, CFS patients showed a significant increase in grey matter volume, localized in the lateral prefrontal cortex. This change in cerebral volume was related to improvements in cognitive speed in the CFS patients. Our findings indicate that the cerebral atrophy associated with CFS is partially reversed after effective CBT. This result provides an example of macroscopic cortical plasticity in the adult human brain, demonstrating a surprisingly dynamic relation between behavioural state and cerebral anatomy. Furthermore, our results reveal a possible neurobiological substrate of psychotherapeutic treatment.