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Sounds, Smells and Tastes of War May Reactivate Gulf War Syndrome

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Researchers are proposing a theory that the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) may begin again when sufferers are exposed to similar sounds, smells and tastes experienced during the war.

In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology on November 15, researchers Dr. Eamonn Ferguson and Helen Cassaday theorize that it all has to do with an immune system chemical called interleukin-1. Interleukin-1 is a compound produced by the body in response to infection, inflammation, or other immunologic challenges. Increased levels of interleukin-1 in the body produce a similar set of symptoms as GWS: fever, fatigue, headache, depression, rashes, body aches and memory problems.

The theory is that the drugs and vaccinations given to Gulf War veterans, as well as the stress they experienced during the war, could have been responsible for increased levels of interleukin-1, thereby producing the symptoms we now call GWS. Furthermore, those symptoms may return when surroundings, such as smells, sounds and tastes, experienced during wartime service are later experienced.

“If you put all the bits together it makes a reasonable argument that this sort of mechanism could underlie an illness such as Gulf War illness,” said Dr. Ferguson of Nottingham, University, UK.

Ferguson and Cassaday plan to conduct further research, including investigating daily symptom diaries from Gulf war veterans, tracking specific sights, sounds and smells that may have triggered symptoms and blood samples showing various levels of interleukin-1.

1. Reuters. “Reminders Might Reactivate Gulf War Syndrome.” November 16, 1999.
2. British Journal of Psychology. 1999;90:459-476.

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