Cellular immune function in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)

Jacqueline M. Cliff, Elizabeth C. King, Ji-Sook Lee, Nuno Sepulveda, Asia-Sophia F. M. Wolf, Caroline Kingdon, Erinna Bowman, Hazel M. Dockrell, Luis C. Nacul, Eliana Lacerda, Eleanor Riley

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Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a debilitating condition with unknown aetiology, unclear pathophysiology and with no diagnostic test or biomarker available. Many patients report their ME/CFS began after an acute infection, and subsequent increased frequency of infections, such as colds or influenza, is common. These factors imply an altered immunological status exists in ME/CFS, in at least a proportion of patients, yet previous studies of peripheral immunity have been discrepant and inconclusive.
The UK ME/CFS Biobank, which has collected blood samples from nearly 300 clinically-confirmed ME/CFS patients, enables large-scale studies of immunological function in phenotypically well-characterised participants. In this study, herpes virus serological status and T cell, B cell, NK cell and monocyte populations were investigated in 251 ME/CFS patients, including 54 who were severely affected, and compared with those from 107 healthy participants and with 46 patients with Multiple Sclerosis. There were no differences
in seroprevalence for six human herpes viruses between ME/CFS and healthy controls, although seroprevalence for the Epstein-Barr virus was higher in multiple sclerosis patients. Contrary to previous reports, no significant differences were observed in NK cell numbers, subtype proportions or in vitro responsiveness between ME/CFS patients and healthy control participants. In contrast, the T cell compartment was altered in ME/CFS, with reduced proportions of effector memory CD8+ T cells and of intermediately differentiated CD8+ T cells in ME/CFS. Conversely, there was a significantly increased proportion of mucosal associated invariant T cells (MAIT) cells, especially in severely affected ME/CFS patients. These abnormalities demonstrate that an altered immunological state does exist in ME/CFS, particularly in severely affected
people. This may simply reflect ongoing or recent infection, or may indicate future increased susceptibility to infection. Longitudinal studies of ME/CFS patients are needed to help to determine cause and effect and thus any potential benefits of immuno-modulatory treatments for ME/CFS.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Publication statusPublished - 16 Apr 2019


  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Natural Killer cells
  • T cell differentiation
  • MAIT cells
  • Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)


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