Australian researchers have identified similar visual features in brain imaging comparisons of people who have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and who are sufferers of long COVID.

The imaging revealed that people with CFS (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis) and long COVID had a “significantly larger” brainstem compared to other patients.

Researchers from Griffith University and The University of Queensland used an ultra-high-field MRI (7 Tesla) to identify the similarity by comparing the visual effects on the brain structure between patients with chronic fatigue or long COVID to a control group of people who were not impacted by either condition.

Dr Kiran Thapaliya, one of the paper’s lead authors, suggested the similar volumes of the brainstem in both of the patient groups could help explain why people with long COVID seemed to experience common CFS symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, autonomic dysfunction and pain.

“We also discovered smaller midbrain volumes were associated with more severe breathing difficulty in CFS and long COVID patients,” Thapaliya said.

“Therefore, brainstem dysfunction in ME/CFS and Long COVID patients could contribute to their neurological, cardiorespiratory symptoms, and movement disorder.”

The peer-reviewed study was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience this month.

Previous research has established that up to 43% of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 have not recovered fully and will develop long COVID symptoms. This trend applies to all age groups, including young adults and children.

Studies further estimate that between 13% and 58% of long COVID patients experience symptoms similar to CFS.

Dr Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik, Griffith’s National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases director, said the world-first observational study drew on the capabilities of 7T MRI because it could discover abnormalities in the brain that other MRIs could not detect.

“We primarily used the 7T MRI to research the brainstem and its sub regions as it helps to resolve brain structures more precisely,” Dr Marshall-Gradisnik said.

Australia only has two 7T MRI machines.

The observational study was funded by Stafford Fox Medical Research Foundation and ME Research UK.


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