Gulf War Illness Has A Neurological Basis
June 16, 2013

Study Shows That Gulf War Illness Is Not Psychologically-Based

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

In the twenty years since the Persian Gulf War, symptoms of joint pain, reduced energy and gastrointestinal disorders — collectively known as Gulf War Illness — described by veterans who served in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm have baffled medical professionals.

Originally thought to be psychologically-based, a new study in the open access journal PLOS ONE suggests the symptoms are caused by biological factors. More specifically, MRI imaging performed in the study has shown a neurological basis for Gulf War Illness.

In the study, brain imaging scans were performed on 28 sufferers of Gulf War Illness before and after exercise tests. In 18 veterans, pain levels increased after completion of the exercise stress tests. MRI scans in these study participants showed a reduction of brain matter in regions associated with pain regulation.

Participants were also asked to perform a series of cognitive tasks. The group of veterans that showed brain matter loss also showed an increased use of the basal ganglia – potentially a sign of the brain compensation that is also seen in people with Alzheimer's disease. Following the exercise tests, this group lost the capacity to use their basal ganglia, indicating an adverse reaction to physiological stress.

The other group of 10 veterans in the study showed substantial increases in heart rate as well as atrophy in the brain stem, the region in the brain where the heart is regulated. Brain scans performed on these veterans during a cognitive task that was performed prior to the exercise tests showed increased compensatory use of the cerebellum. Like the other study cohort, this group lost the ability to use this compensatory area after exercise.

"The use of other brain areas to compensate for a damaged area is seen in other disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, which is why we believe our data show that these veterans are suffering from central nervous system dysfunction," said study co-author Dr. Rakib Rayhan, a researcher at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

Although veterans were exposed to nerve agents and other toxic chemicals, research has yet to link these agents to Gulf War Illness.

"Our findings help explain and validate what these veterans have long said about their illness," Rayhan posited.

Study participant Carolyn Kroot, a retired warrant officer in the Army National Guard, spent six months in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. She said she was exposed to sarin nerve gas in Saudi Arabia. After returning, Kroot realized she was starting to experience unusual symptoms.

"I had a hard time comprehending and remembering things, and I was always fatigued," she said. Her pursuit of treatment has proven unsuccessful so far. "I was always dismissed, and the favorite treatment was Motrin and an antidepressant. It was so frustrating.”

Kroot said she was pleased to hear the results of the study.

"It has been liberating for me to have the validation, the confirmation, that there is indeed something physically wrong with me," she said. "If I have brain damage, I am not upset. I have been living with this for decades, and the damage is done. I can't go back.”

"At least I will have an answer," Kroot said "I have been looking for one for much too long."