Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Research offers new hope for flu sufferers

BBC World Service

A man blows his nose with a tissue
The findings of the study could help make being ill less miserable

Aches, fever, exhaustion... when you have been knocked out with the flu, the symptoms are bad enough.

And that is before the emotional effects of feeling miserable and tired kick in.

There is little you can do except hide away until the fever passes and your body recovers.

But researchers from the University of Sussex believe that could soon change.

They say new studies show that it is not necessarily the physical symptoms making us feel mentally dreadful and fed up - but rather the brain's response to the infection.

"When we have the flu we feel a bit fatigued, a little bit tired - perhaps our mood is a little bit reduced," explained Dr Neil Harrison from the University of Sussex.

"This sort of constellation of different symptoms is known collectively as 'sickness behaviours'."

Subgenual cingulate

While it seems obvious that we feel under-par when we are ill, Dr Harrison says there is more to it than just physical sickness.

"People have assumed that these are just natural consequences of having an infection," he explained.

"But it seems that whatever the cause of the infection is, the symptoms are exactly the same."

In other words, no matter what the type of infection or illness, the psychological feelings we experience are largely the same - meaning it is unlikely to be related to the infection itself.

Researchers tested healthy volunteers by injecting then with a vaccination for typhoid - a side-effect of which is mild flu-like symptoms.

By using an functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI), they could monitor which parts of the brain were inflamed when performing simple tasks, such as looking at emotional facial expressions.

What's remarkable about this is that this individual brain region is the area that's most implicated in major depressive illness
Dr Neil Harrison

"What we showed was that those people that had the biggest reduction in mood to the typhoid vaccination showed the greatest increase in activity in a small brain region called the subgenual cingulate.

"What's remarkable about this is that this individual brain region is the area that's most implicated in major depressive illness."

The results were compared to volunteers who were just injected with a placebo - essentially just salty water, with no flu-like side effects.

In contrast to the volunteers injected with the typhoid vaccine, the placebo volunteers did not display the same level of activity in the subgenual cingulate.

Suicidal thoughts

The discovery has potentially life-changing implications for patients who suffer serious depression as a side-effect of strong medication.

"There a group of patients which receive interferon treatment for chronic hepatitis C. This is a very effective treatment but it's associated with the onset of major depressive illnesses.

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"In some cases this can be associated with suicidal thoughts."

Dr Harrison hopes that the research gives clues to new techniques which could be used to minimise these side-effects.

"It's extremely early days at the moment.

"But one could certainly predict that in the future there could be medications designed that would help with these symptoms, definitely."

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