Machine Learning detects pattern of differences in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data between Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Gulf War Illness (GWI), by Destie Provenzano, Stuart D Washington, Yuan J Rao, Murray Loew and James Baraniuk in Brain Sci. 2020, 10(7), 456; [] 17 July 2020


Research abstract:


Gulf War Illness (GWI) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) are two debilitating disorders that share similar symptoms of chronic pain, fatigue, and exertional exhaustion after exercise. Many physicians continue to believe that both are psychosomatic disorders and to date no underlying etiology has been discovered. As such, uncovering objective biomarkers is important to lend credibility to criteria for diagnosis and to help differentiate the two disorders.


We assessed cognitive differences in 80 subjects with GWI and 38 with CFS by comparing corresponding fMRI scans during 2-back working memory tasks before and after exercise to model brain activation during normal activity and after exertional exhaustion, respectively. Voxels were grouped by the count of total activity into the Automated Anatomical Labeling (AAL) atlas and used in an “ensemble” series of machine learning algorithms to assess if a multi-regional pattern of differences in the fMRI scans could be detected.


A K-Nearest Neighbor (70%/81%), Linear Support Vector Machine (SVM) (70%/77%), Decision Tree (82%/82%), Random Forest (77%/78%), AdaBoost (69%/81%), Naïve Bayes (74%/78%), Quadratic Discriminant Analysis (QDA) (73%/75%), Logistic Regression model (82%/82%), and Neural Net (76%/77%) were able to differentiate CFS from GWI before and after exercise with an average of 75% accuracy in predictions across all models before exercise and 79% after exercise.

An iterative feature selection and removal process based on Recursive Feature Elimination (RFE) and Random Forest importance selected 30 regions before exercise and 33 regions after exercise that differentiated CFS from GWI across all models, and produced the ultimate best accuracies of 82% before exercise and 82% after exercise by Logistic Regression or Decision Tree by a single model, and 100% before and after exercise when selected by any six or more models.

Differential activation on both days included the right anterior insula, left putamen, and bilateral orbital frontal, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, superior, inferior, and precuneus (medial) parietal, and lateral temporal regions. Day 2 had the cerebellum, left supplementary motor area and bilateral pre- and post-central gyri. Changes between days included the right Rolandic operculum switching to the left on Day 2, and the bilateral midcingulum switching to the left anterior cingulum.


We concluded that CFS and GWI are significantly differentiable using a pattern of fMRI activity based on an ensemble machine learning model.

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