A study of the immunology of the chronic fatigue syndrome: correlation of immunologic parameters to health dysfunction

Clin Immunol Immunopathol. 1998 Apr;87(1):60-7. doi: 10.1006/clin.1997.4512.


Surface and intracellular immunologic and apoptotic markers and functional lymphocyte assays after stimulation with anti-CD3/anti-CD28 antibodies or phytohemagglutinin (PHA) were studied in 44 patients fulfilling the Oxford criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Results were then correlated to scores for the Short Form-36 health questionnaire (SF-36), which assesses eight aspects of patient's well-being, and for the general health questionnaire (GHQ), which detects current psychiatric disorder. Patients had significantly increased mean fluorescence intensity readings of HLA-DR in CD4 and CD8 cells (P < 0.05). Expression of the costimulatory receptor CD28 in CD8 cells was significantly reduced, and the apoptosis repressor ratio of bcl-2/bax in both CD4 and CD8 was increased in patients (P < 0.05). Patients with increased HLA-DR expression had significantly lower SF-36 total scores, worse body pains, and poorer general health perception and physical functioning scores. Increased spontaneous lymphocyte proliferation was associated with poor general health perception. PHA proliferative responses were lower in patients with poor emotional and mental health scores, and the anti-CD3/anti-CD28 response was low in those with low general health perception scores. Higher spontaneous proliferation and reduced PHA responses correlated with higher GHQ scores. Similarly, GHQ scores were significantly higher, indicating worse mental health, in those with lower total SF-36 scores and worse general and mental health scores in the SF-36 questionnaire. Finally, higher expression of the costimulatory molecule CD28 correlated with higher total SF-36 scores, general health perception and social functioning scores, and with lower role limitation due to physical health. The increased expression of class II antigens and the reduced expression of the costimulatory receptor CD28, which is a marker of terminally differentiated cells, lend further support to the concept of immunoactivation of T-lymphocytes in CFS and may be consistent with the notion of a viral etiopathogenesis in the illness. We report, for the first time, increased expression of the apoptosis repressor protein bcl-2, which may contribute to enhanced survival of activated lymphocytes. Using the SF-36 health assessment questionnaire and the GHQ, we demonstrated changes in different immunological parameters, each of which correlated with particular aspects of disease symptomatology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • CD28 Antigens / metabolism
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / diagnosis
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / immunology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Interferon-alpha / therapeutic use
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • fas Receptor / metabolism


  • BAX protein, human
  • CD28 Antigens
  • Interferon-alpha
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • fas Receptor