Researcher Dikoma Shungu Continues Brain Studies with Association Grant

Dikoma Shungu, PhD, a physics professor and research scientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, is among the most recent group of investigators to receive a research grant from the Solve ME/CFS Initiative . Shungu has been awarded a research grant to measure brain chemicals in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). But this is just the latest achievement in the history of his participation in the Association’s research program.

Shungu, who is an established scientist in neuroimaging and neurometabolism, received an earlier grant from the Solve ME/CFS Initiative in 2006 to study brain metabolism in CFS patients. Using a brain scanning technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), which not only provides a picture of the brain but also detects and measures various brain chemicals, Shungu and his team measured levels of several brain chemicals, including creatine, N-acetylaspartate, choline and lactate.

The preliminary study showed that brain fluid of CFS patients contains significantly elevated levels of lactate, a substance important in metabolism, with lactate concentrations increased by 348% in CFS patients compared to healthy control subjects. Results from this preliminary study, also funded by the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, were published in October 2008 in the journal NMR in Biomedicine.

Also this fall, CFIDS Association scientific director, Suzanne Vernon, PhD, arranged for Shungu to present his research and findings at the International Fatigue Science conference in Okinawa, Japan, fostering discussion and comparison with respect to the extensive brain imaging work being done by Japanese researchers investigating CFS. While in Japan, Vernon introduced Shungu and lead Japanese researcher Yasuyoshi Watanabe, MD, PhD, in hopes of establishing a United States-Japan brain research collaboration in response to an NIH funding announcement for such initiatives.

The new award by the Solve ME/CFS Initiative will allow Shungu and his team to verify results of the earlier study by examining a larger group of CFS patients. It will also enable the scientists to explore the reason for the elevated lactate levels. “We want to determine whether lactate levels are higher in CFS patents because their brains contain high levels of toxic compounds that cause a condition called oxidative stress, which could implicate chronic inflammation, or because mitochondrial dysfunction is causing their brain energy production to malfunction,” said Shungu. “This research study is significant because it represents the first comprehensive attempt to establish the brain mechanisms that might be malfunctioning in CFS—either causing the illness or leading to its debilitating symptoms,” Shungu noted.

Vernon said the study also has implications for diagnosing CFS, for which there is currently no diagnostic test. “If this study is successful, brain lactate levels could provide an objective diagnostic biomarker for CFS.”

The study could also be important in disability proceedings, since more than 25% of CFS patients are disabled by the illness, but many are denied disability benefits. “Dr. Shungu’s preliminary study showed that the higher the level of lactate, the greater the severity of fatigue a patient experiences,” said Vernon. “If this is confirmed in the new study, it will provide evidence of a metabolic problem in these patients and indicate a debilitating level of fatigue, which could be useful in establishing disability claims.”

The award to Shungu is one of six research grants announced by the Solve ME/CFS Initiative on December 3, 2008. Grants totaling $647,940 were awarded to research teams in the U.S. and Canada to help identify biomarkers to improve diagnosis and treatment of CFS. The other five grant recipients are: Gordon Broderick, PhD, of the University of Alberta in Canada; Kathleen Light, PhD, of the University of Utah Health Sciences Center; Marvin Medow, PhD, of New York Medical College; Bhubaneswar Mishra, PhD, of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU; and Sanjay Shukla, PhD, of Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation (see “Largest-Ever CFS Research Initiative Announced”)

December 5, 2008