Long considered a form of combat stress by the US Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs, the syndrome has been examined extensively. A new study by researchers at the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas in Dallas, finds abnormalities associated with Gulf War Syndrome have persisted for 20 years and in certain cases, have actually worsened.
Dr. Robert Haley, chief epidemiologist at UT Southwestern, along with a team of clinicians and researchers, have been at odds with the government for over a decade in a funding battle
over Gulf War Syndrome studies, yet the new report, published in the current issue of the journal Radiology
, sheds more light on damages to the brain from nerve gas exposure.
“This was really one of the first techniques to show an objective picture of whether there's really brain damage or not,” said Haley, the Dallas Observer
In the study
, a neurotransmitter which mimics nerve gas, acetylcholine, was used. It slows the heart rate as well as blood flowing to the brain, making one sluggish, but for receptors in those damaged by nerve gas, there is no sluggish experience. For some, it has the exact opposite effect.
Once the acetylcholine was administered, radio waves were projected into the carotid artery. Haley then used a type of MRI for blood flow measurements. Veterans afflicted with the syndrome failed to respond with normal decreases in blood flow.
Some veterans of the Persian Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm, more commonly referred to as the Gulf War, have long complained of abnormalities including memory loss, depression, neuropathic pain and lack of concentration. For some veterans, these symptoms began almost immediately upon their return home, yet the government has been slow in acknowledging a connection to wartime activities.
In its final report in 1997, President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses found stress to be a likely factor contributing to the syndrome, and in its summary stated
Stress is known to affect the brain, immune system, cardiovascular system, and various hormonal responses. Stress manifests in diverse ways, and is likely to be an important contributing factor to the broad range of physical and psychological illnesses currently being reported by Gulf War veterans.
However, the new study confirms brain damage is involved in Gulf War Syndrome, but which specific cells are being impacted limits treatment. “We’re shooting in the dark,” Haley noted, regarding treatments. “So far, nobody’s guessed right. But the research is really going to come to a head in the next six to 12 months.”