A team of researchers have recently published a new hypothesis that could explain what causes chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and the symptoms and physiological dysfunction associated with it. The researchers believe 'kindling', or hypersensitivity of the brain, to be at the root of the illness.
Kindling is a process that develops when the brain is chronically exposed to low-level stimuli with the ultimate result being hypersensitivity and seizure-like activity when that stimulus is encountered again at lower levels, or even in its absence. Essentially the brain is left in a state of constant "high alert".
In their paper published in the journal Neuroscience and Medicine, the scientists from DePaul University in Chicago suggest that a chronic viral illness, which may originally have been asymptomatic, may illicit an immune response involving pro-inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-1beta (IL-1β) which act as a chronic stimulus to the brain, altering its electrical activity, and ultimately causing kindling. They add that an acute trauma like a high impact head injury sustained in a car or sports accident, for example, could also trigger the kindling response. Both scenarios are consistent with reports from ME/CFS patients regarding the onset of their illness and evidence of chronic viral infections and cytokine abnormalities have consistently been found.