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Brain damage in Gulf War syndrome pinpointed – Texas researchers verify link to toxic exposure

  [ 43 votes ]   [ 5 Comments ] • March 27, 2009

“If this finding can be repeated in a larger group, we might have an objective test for Gulf War syndrome and its variants.”

A new study by University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center researchers is the first to pinpoint damage inside the brains of veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome – a finding that links the illness to chemical exposures and may lead to diagnostic tests and treatments.

Dr. Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern and lead author of the study, said the research uncovers and locates areas of the brain that function abnormally. Recent studies had shown evidence of chemical abnormalities and shrinkage of white matter in the brains of veterans exposed to certain toxic chemicals, such as sarin gas during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The research, published in the March issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,* enables investigators to visualize exact brain structures affected by these chemical exposures, Dr. Haley said.

"Before this study, we didn’t know exactly what parts of the brain were damaged and causing the symptoms in these veterans,” he said. “We designed an experiment to test areas of the brain that would have been damaged if the illness was caused by sarin or pesticides, and the results were positive.”

In designing the study, Dr. Haley and his colleagues reasoned that if low-level sarin or pesticides had damaged Gulf War veterans’ brains, a likely target of the damage would be cholinergic receptors on cells in certain brain structures. If that was so, administering safe levels of medicines that stimulate cholinergic receptors would elicit an abnormal response in ill veterans.

In the study, 21 chronically ill Gulf War veterans and 17 well veterans were given small doses of physostigmine, a substance which briefly stimulates cholinergic receptors. Researchers then measured the study participants’ brain cell response with brain scans.

“What we found was that some of the brain areas we previously suspected responded abnormally to the cholinergic challenge,” Dr. Haley said. “Those areas were in the basal ganglia, hippocampus, thalamus and amygdala, and the thalamus. Changes in functioning of these brain structures can certainly cause problems with concentration and memory, body pain, fatigue, abnormal emotional responses and personality changes that we commonly see in ill Gulf War veterans.”

A previous study funded by the U.S. Army found that repetitive exposure to low-level sarin nerve gas caused changes in cholinergic receptors in lab rats.

“An added bonus is a statistical formula combining the brain responses in 17 brain areas that separated the ill from the well veterans, and three different Gulf War syndrome variants from each other with a high degree of accuracy,” Dr. Haley said.

“If this finding can be repeated in a larger group, we might have an objective test for Gulf War syndrome and its variants.”

An objective diagnostic test, he said, sets the stage for ongoing genetic studies to see why some people are affected by chemical exposures, and why others are not. New studies would also allow the selection of homogenous groups of ill veterans in which to run efficient clinical trials for treatments.

Level of Protective Blood Enzyme May Determine Susceptibility

Dr. Haley first described Gulf War syndrome in a series of papers published in January 1997 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In previous studies, research from Dr. Haley showed that veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome had lower levels of a protective blood enzyme called paraoxonase, which usually fights off the toxins found in sarin. Veterans who served in the same geographical area and did not get sick had higher levels of this enzyme.

Dr. Haley and his colleagues have closely followed the same group of tests subjects since 1995. In 2006, UT Southwestern and the Department of Veterans Affairs established a dedicated, collaborative Gulf War illness research enterprise in Dallas, managed by UT Southwestern.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a longtime supporter of Gulf War research, facilitated that agreement and secured a $75 million appropriation over five years for Gulf War illness research. This study was funded, in part, by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.
* Article Citation: “Abnormal brain response to cholinergic challenge in chronic encephalopathy from the 1991 Gulf War.” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Mar 2009, Robert Haley, MD, et al. [E-mail:]

Source: UT Southwestern news release, Mar 20, 2009

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Article Comments Post a Comment

Toxins VS Concussion
Posted by: Svette_Palme
Mar 29, 2009
There were earlier articles about Iraq War vets and their problems from the percussive shocks of bomb blasts [which used to kill soldiers but body armour is now saving their lives]. It seems that there are shock waves travelling up the blood vessels and into the brain that do the damage. There is also regular concussion damage to some of them. Some of the symptoms are different of course, but one that is common to all three groups is body pain. How interesting!! Whats great about this study is that it shows a way to determine if the damage is from toxins or other things, by using the physostigmine, a substance which briefly stimulates cholinergic receptors. The toxin affected victims will have an abnormal response to that physostigmine. Thanks to this kind of work, there might be ways to provide a more definite diagnosis for people with chronic pain conditions. It seems now that we have the toxins, the concussions, the percussive/shockwave, and of course the viral and bacterial causes of chronic pain, and they ALL make sense and are ALL becoming more and more legitimatised [is that a word?> I am so tired and my legs hurt]
Reply Reply

Posted by: Svette_Palme
Mar 29, 2009
why don't these replies show up with the paragraphs [i.e. formatting] that I wrote it with??


Massachusetts Resolution at the Medical Society based on Gulf War Research
Posted by: lisanagy
Apr 8, 2009
I used the Haley research along with the Gulf War study and Baraniuk's research on Spinal fluid in GWS , CFS and fibro to support a resolution for the MAss Medical Society to consider this May on the 8th at their next meeting. I asked for recognition of these as Environmental Illnesses, and that they are physiologic and to creat a CME coourse for physician education in this area. Studies like this that are government funded help to force the medicla community to keep up with the times I think. Lisa Nagy MD - your thoughts and comments.
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hi how did you get their help??
Posted by: Almond08
Feb 10, 2012
I have heard about this program through a nurse and started research a little myself. I could be mistaking but I have to try.
My cousin Scott is only 19 years old and he has suffered with diabetes since he was a child. On December 30th he went into cardiac arrest, then into a comma and now just sits in a hospital bed with his eyes open and very little brain activity. We have lots of faith in medicine, we just need the right tools.
Please let me know if not with you where can I enroll him in a research group that could help him get better soon.
Thank you for your time,
Laura Almond


Brain Damage in Gulf War Syndrome
Posted by: Squirt
May 24, 2009
Well, it's about time! The next thing we need is to verify that the exposure of toxins was also spread through bodily fluids to family members of the Gulf Vets. In 1994, I married a Gulf Vet who reported he was exposed to gas when the alarms in his encampment sounded daily for about 2 weeks in areas where caches of rockets and other ordinance left behind by Iraqi Troops were being disposed by blowing them up. In addition, during the 13 months he was in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there were frequent sprayings of the sand to control sand fleas with pesticides containing DDT. My teenage daughter wore one of his desert BDU's to school when there was a "Dress as a Parent Dresses for Their Job" day. In spite of several washings, to this day that BDU set is still shedding the fine sands found in the Middle East and carried back from the Gulf in the clothing and equipment of our Armed Forces. Now, from perfect health at the time we were married in 1994, to my diagnosis of fibromyalgia in 1998 and medical problems similar to fibromyalgia starting in my daughter in 1996, we each have progressively gotten worse in the passing years, in spite of medical care and keeping up with the research and development of supplements that help keep our body immunities at the best levels we are able to obtain. What we need is the identities of the substances we were exposed to, the manner in which they have affected our neural system, and acceptance by the Pentagon that it was their policies that allowed the military forces of the Middle Eastern Countries to have chemical agents to use in their weaponry that ended up exposing our troops and then innocently bringing it home to unknowingly expose their loved ones. It is only then that our medical researchers will be able to obtain the information they need about the process used in the chemicals that cause changes in DNA markers so that antidotes can be developed that will rid the nervous systems of the hundreds of thousands with FMS, CFS, and other disorders that result in chronic pain and fatigue that have made each of us disabled and increasingly non-functional for lack of a cure.
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