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Cook heading groundbreaking chronic fatigue syndrome project

UW–Madison researcher Dane Cook has spent nearly 15 years studying various aspects of chronic fatigue syndrome, a medical condition that’s characterized by a debilitating, continued exhaustion and a host of other symptoms that are not directly caused by exertion or other medical conditions.

The associate professor with the Department of Kinesiology started examining chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, from an exercise science standpoint by looking at its ties to the cardio vascular and cardio respiratory systems, before moving his research focus to the brain and how it’s possible to examine fatigue using brain imaging methods.

Dane CookOther researchers, meanwhile, were examining the immune system and looking at blood markers and other gene expressions linked to this ailment.

And while these various groups were making headway individually, Cook says he couldn’t help but think that it would be more productive to look at how all these different aspects, “this perfect symphony of dynamic interactions,” come together to cause CFS.

Cook’s vision helped him land a grant in 2012 from the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) Association of America for an innovative applied research initiative. This project is both an exercise and brain imaging study of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, and it’s designed to examine the complex relationship between brain structure and function, gene expression and symptoms in patients with CFS before, and after, exercise.

This project is not only a collaborative effort between UW–Madison’s Department of Kinesiology and the Waisman Center’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, but also will include the expertise of professors Alan Light of the University of Utah, and Gordon Broderick of the University of Alberta.

“As individuals, we were making steps forward,” says Cook. “But now we hope to see leaps forward.”

Cook’s team will be examining data from exercise testing, brain imaging and gene expression markers in the blood to understand why some individuals who suffer from CFS don’t receive the typical benefits of acute exercise — such as increased energy, lower blood pressure and improved mood — that most do. Instead, a single bout of exercise further exhausts those suffering from CFS.

Dane Cook pull-quoteThis project also is part of a much larger effort to bring chronic fatigue syndrome researchers from across the nation together. Cook’s team is one of five to receive a total of $2 million in awards as part of the CFIDS Association’s initiative to advance diagnostic and effective treatment of the illness.

Rest does not relieve the symptoms of those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, and this debilitating trait of the disease lasts for a minimum of six months in adults. Other manifestations of chronic fatigue syndrome -- which Cook says afflicts between 1 and 2 percent of the adult population -- include malaise after exertion, muscle and joint pain, and chronic and severe mental and physical exhaustion.

In 2007, he published a neuro-imaging study that showed when patients with CFS were asked to do a mentally fatiguing task, that these peoples’ brains were using more resources than a typical individual to conduct the same amount of work. At that time, he hypothesized that each cognitive task one undertakes during a day requires a certain amount of resources — and if those suffering from CFS utilize more resources to do that same task, this inefficient use of resources could be why they become so wiped out.

Moving forward, Cook is determined to better understand the psychobiological mechanisms of fatigue and pain, and how exercise can be used to better understand and treat these phenomena.

“Time will tell, but I believe we’re starting to turn a corner on some of this research,” he says.
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