Brain connectivity differences distinguish between two classes of ME/CFS


Jiasheng Su, Kiran Thapaliya, Natalie Eaton-Fitch, Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik, Leighton Barnden


Griffith University, Australia


Brain Connectivity, 2023 April; 13(3):164–73


ME Research UK funded Dr Su. The study was also supported by grants from various other research and charitable foundations.



Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a debilitating disease with unknown pathophysiology. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in ME/CFS have reported disparate connectivities for the brain salience (SA) network and default mode network (DMN).

Materials and Methods

In this study, we acquired resting-state and task fMRI with an advanced scanner for improved subject numbers: 24 healthy controls (HC) and 42 ME/CFS patients, 18 meeting the International Consensus Criteria (ICC) and 24 meeting the Fukuda criteria. We evaluated mean functional connectivity between the SA network and DMN hubs and subcortical regions known to be involved in ME/CFS. We tested the hypothesis that ME/CFS connectivity differed from HC and the ICC and Fukuda classes are distinguished by different connectivities with HC for different pairs of SA network, DMN, or subcortical hubs.


During resting-state fMRI, only two connections differed from HC, both for Fukuda ME/CFS and both with an SA network hub. During task fMRI, 10 ME/CFS connections differed from HC, 5 for ICC, and 5 for Fukuda. None was common to both classes. Eight of the 10 different connections involved an SA network hub, six of the 10 were weaker in ME/CFS, and 4 were stronger. SA network connections to the hippocampus and brainstem reticular activation system (RAS) differed from and were stronger than HC.


The SA network mediates the relative activity of the DMN and executive networks and an imbalance will have functional consequences. The RAS and hippocampus modulate cortical activation. Different regulatory connections are consistent with the impaired cognitive performance and sleep-wake cycle of ME/CFS. Different neuropathologies are involved in ICC and Fukuda classes. Impact statement Criteria for the diagnosis of the debilitating myalgic encephalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) condition have evolved over two decades. Physicians are now instructed that the recent, more stringent (ICC) questionnaire criteria define a disease that is distinct from those remaining subjects defined by the previous Fukuda criteria. This work reports the remarkable finding that functional magnetic resonance imaging connectivity can differentiate between these two classes of ME/CFS. This is the first objective medical evidence that the questionnaire-based diagnosis does indeed differentiate between two different disease states. This facilitates a clearer understanding of ME/CFS and can better direct research and therapy development.

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