The meeting heard several strands of evidence suggesting that CFS, which has frequently been dismissed as a psychosomatic ailment, does have a real organic cause.
Tests using the latest techniques for analysing DNA have shown nearly half of those suffering from CFS have a chronic viral infection, Dr Geoffrey Clements of the Regional Virus Laboratory at Glasgow's Ruchill Hospital, said. He emphasised that it was an association, not cause and effect, but the association was 'one worth following up'.
There are estimated to be more than 50,000 sufferers from the condition in Britain at any one time. The symptoms include prolonged fatigue lasting six months or more, muscle pains and visual impairment. Onset of the condition frequently follows an acute viral illness, leading to the alternative name of 'post-viral fatigue syndrome'.
Dr Stuart Butler from the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, monitored the brainwaves of people with CFS as they undertook some laboratory psychological tests, such as responding to stimuli. Those with CFS displayed a strong abnormal negative voltage in the brain's pattern of electrical activity after they had detected the stimulus to which they had to respond in the test.
The voltage 'is a sign of dysfunction in the cerebral cortex. It does not occur in normal subjects with the procedures used in our study,' Dr Butler said. The response could be evoked in normal subjects only under conditions of stress in which brain biochemistry might be temporarily disrupted, he said.
The response in those with CFS was not due to depression. It represented 'a clear indication that the physiology of the cerebral cortex is disturbed in a manner that may have something in common with certain neurological illnesses which have an organic cause'.