All in your head? An introduction to the brain

This month, our research posts will be focusing on the brain and nervous system in ME/CFS – helping to shine a spotlight on research happening around the world, including projects that ME Research UK has helped support.

First, here’s an introduction to the brain and some of the techniques used to study it.

For decades, people with ME/CFS have been told it’s all in your head, trivialising a devastating illness and putting the responsibility for recovery and management back to the patient. However, research over the last few years has revealed a multitude of irregularities in several body systems in the illness, from the immune system to energy production to the plasma of the blood.

There is also plenty of evidence suggesting problems in the brain in ME/CFS. Not psychological problems, but abnormalities in both structure and function. This begs the question – is the answer to ME/CFS really in the head after all?

The brain is incredibly complex, comprised of more than 100 billion nerves responsible for communicating a variety of processes. The brain is divided into specific areas responsible for different areas of function, but these all work closely together.

How to study the brain

Its complexity makes the brain a challenging organ to study in research, but the field of neuroscience is progressing further every day in its attempts to understand more about the brain, especially in the context of illness.

A number of techniques are commonly used to study the brain.

computed tomography (CT) scan is a non-invasive method of visualising the brain. A scanner records several X-rays and converts them into images showing details of the brain and skull.

Another non-invasive method is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which uses radio waves in a magnetic field to create detailed images of the brain.  

An angiogram is where a doctor injects a liquid (contrast agent) into a person’s vein, from where it travels through the body into the brain. An X-ray video is then taken and can identify problems in the blood vessels within the brain.

Sometimes referred to as a spinal tap, a lumbar puncture is an invasive procedure in which a long needle is inserted into the area around the nerves in the spine, and fluid extracted for further analysis.

An electroencephalogram (EEG) involves several electrodes placed onto specific areas of the head to measure brain activity. This technique is commonly used to help diagnose seizures.

Finally, assessment of mental function – such as problem solving or memory – can be performed by neurocognitive testing in the form of specially-designed questionnaires.

Next week, we’ll look at how some of these techniques have been used to reveal abnormalities in the brains of people with ME/CFS.

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