Increased BDNF levels may play an important role in the pathophysiology of ME/CFS

Andrea Polli, Manosij Ghosh, Jelena Bakusic, Kelly Ickmans, Dora Monteyne, Brigitte Velkeniers, Bram Bekaert, Lode Godderis & Jo Nijs

Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

Arthritis & Rheumatology, 2020 Nov; 72(11):1936–44

Key findings

  • BDNF is a protein – released during exercise and physical activity – which can increase the sensitivity of pain pathways
  • Serum BDNF levels were increased in patients with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia, compared with control subjects, potentially due to epigenetic modification of the BDNF gene
  • Altered BDNF levels may therefore play an important role in the pathophysiology of ME/CFS

Summary

Cort Johnson discusses the findings of this study in a bit more detail in this article.

The aim of this study was to explore the role of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) genetics, epigenetics and protein expression in patients with both CFS and comorbid fibromyalgia (CFS/FM).

BDNF is a protein – released during exercise and physical activity – which can increase the sensitivity of pain pathways.

A total of 54 participants (28 patients with CFS/FM and 26 matched healthy controls) underwent a comprehensive assessment, including questionnaires, sensory testing and blood withdrawal.

Serum BDNF protein levels were measured, as well as DNA methylation of the BDNF gene (an epigenetic modification). The assessments were repeated a few days later to check they were stable over time.

Serum BNDF levels were higher in patients with CFS/FM than in control subjects, while BDNF DNA methylation was lower in the patient group. Furthermore, lower methylation was associated with higher BDNF levels, which in turn were associated with more severe symptoms and widespread increased sensitivity to pain.

These findings suggest that BDNF levels are elevated in patients with CFS/FM, and this might represent a key mechanism explaining CFS/FM pathophysiology.