Microglia and fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia is literally in your head

Microglia

Image: Shutterstock.com/Jose Luis Calvo

People who suffer from fibromyalgia hear constantly that they are just imagining their symptoms. It’s one of the most infuriating parts of getting help for the disease. But is true that fibromyalgia is in your head? Research into the relationship between microglia and fibromyalgia shows it may be literally in your head.

Microglia

Microglia are immune cells that pass through the barrier of your brain. This causes inflammation in the brain. It’s a normal part of your body’s immune system.

But when you develop certain brain disorders, the microglia go into overdrive. They begin attacking the structures of the brain. And that plays a role in diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

And it turns out that these microglia may actually be responsible for fibromyalgia.

Microglia and Fibromyalgia

Jarred Younger at the University of Alabama is a scientist studying the role that microglia play in fibromyalgia. Tired of hearing patients told that “your fibromyalgia is in your head,” Younger began looking for explanations of what might cause the disorder.

He focused in on the immune system of fibromyalgia patients. The first step was to test the patients’ blood for abnormalities. He found that there were a number of markers in their blood that were unusual.

First, the level of leptin was far higher in the blood of fibromyalgia patients. Leptin is a hormone that is released from fat cells. Younger found that not only was the concentration in fibromyalgia patients’ blood higher but that the concentration of leptin could predict how severe their symptoms were from day to day.

But leptin is also a hormone that can pass through the barrier into the brain. And that’s where the microglia come in. Younger believes that the presence of higher levels of leptin might be causing microglia to become activated and triggering the symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is (literally) in your head

If Younger is correct, it means in a strict sense that fibromyalgia is in your head. The reaction between increased leptin levels and the microglia in your brain could easily be the reason that fibromyalgia causes the symptoms it does.

As Younger says:

Microglia defend our brain against everything. When we get the flu, for instance, microglia are activated. These cells make us want to crawl into bed and do nothing – so our body can devote its resources to fighting off the flu.

Fatigue and flu-like aches? Sounds a lot like fibromyalgia, right?

And that means that by understanding the role that microglia play in fibromyalgia, we could get closer to a cure. But the problem is that there is no good way to measure the way that your brain’s immune cells respond to leptin. And Younger hopes that developing a better way to measure this response can help develop a test for fibromyalgia. And hopefully, that is the first step to a cure.

Younger’s research is a great first step in finally getting to the cause of fibromyalgia. And understanding how fibromyalgia is caused by the brain can make treating it easier.

We are still a long way from getting to the bottom of the disease. But this research into microglia and fibromyalgia is a good start.

 

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