Background: The aim of this study was to investigate the possibility that a decreased mitochondrial ATP synthesis causes muscular and mental fatigue and plays a role in the pathophysiology of the chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME).
Methods: Female patients (n = 15) and controls (n = 15) performed a cardiopulmonary exercise test (CPET) by cycling at a continuously increased work rate till maximal exertion. The CPET was repeated 24 h later. Before the tests, blood was taken for the isolation of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), which were processed in a special way to preserve their oxidative phosphorylation, which was tested later in the presence of ADP and phosphate in permeabilized cells with glutamate, malate and malonate plus or minus the complex I inhibitor rotenone, and succinate with rotenone plus or minus the complex II inhibitor malonate in order to measure the ATP production via Complex I and II, respectively. Plasma CK was determined as a surrogate measure of a decreased oxidative phosphorylation in muscle, since the previous finding that in a group of patients with external ophthalmoplegia the oxygen consumption by isolated muscle mitochondria correlated negatively with plasma creatine kinase, 24 h after exercise.
Results: At both exercise tests the patients reached the anaerobic threshold and the maximal exercise at a much lower oxygen consumption than the controls and this worsened in the second test. This implies an increase of lactate, the product of anaerobic glycolysis, and a decrease of the mitochondrial ATP production in the patients. In the past this was also found in patients with defects in the mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. However the oxidative phosphorylation in PBMC was similar in CFS/ME patients and controls. The plasma creatine kinase levels before and 24 h after exercise were low in patients and controls, suggesting normality of the muscular mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation.
Conclusion: The decrease in mitochondrial ATP synthesis in the CFS/ME patients is not caused by a defect in the enzyme complexes catalyzing oxidative phosphorylation, but in another factor.
Clinical trials registration number: NL16031.040.07.