GULF WAR SYNDROME: Study Points to Brain Damage
Gulf War veterans suffering from unexplained fatigue, muscle pain, memory loss and sleep disorders, among other symptoms, have signs of brain damage, according to a new study by University of Texas researchers. The report, presented at the annual convention of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago yesterday, found that sick veterans had 10%-25% lower levels of a chemical called N-acetyl-asparate (NAA), which indicates a loss of neurons in the brain stem and basal ganglia that control reflexes, movement, memory and emotion. James Fleckenstein, the study's principal author said that the study was the first to demonstrate brain damage in veterans suffering Gulf War syndrome (Myers, New York Times, 12/1). Fleckenstein added that even a 10% loss of NAA would be a "pretty severe hit" to brain function (Los Angeles Times/Minneapolis Star Tribune, 12/1). Although the researchers did not identify the exact cause of the brain damage, the findings indicate that scientists are "narrowing in on chemical exposure -- from pesticides, low levels of nerve gas or an experimental drug given to troops -- as the cause of the illness." Last month the RAND Corporation release a survey that concluded that pyridostigmine bromide, an experimental drug intended to protect against nerve gas attacks might be responsible for the illness (New York Times, 12/1). Researchers also are proposing that sick veterans "have a genetic vulnerability to some of the dangerous chemicals present in the Persian Gulf battle theater" (Los Angeles Times/Minneapolis Star Tribune, 12/1). The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has supported 145 research projects involving Gulf War Syndrome at a cost of $133.5 million, released a statement saying, "At this time, any speculation about excessive neuronal (brain cell) damage in Gulf veterans is premature" (Verango, USA Today, 12/1).
It Is All in Their Heads
Dr. Robert Haley, a chief investigator in the study, said, "There is no longer some murky 'Gulf War syndrome.' This is a Gulf War disease, and we need to stop the debate and start treating it." Some sick veterans are cheering the study's findings, as they validate symptoms doctors often have believed "are caused by other, less grave problems." Study participant Jerry Jones, who spent five months in the Persian Gulf, said, "It's satisfying to know there is a problem in our head, but not the kind of problem the military thinks is in our heads" (Talan, Newsday, 12/1). The next steps will be to determine which of the veterans' symptoms "correlate with the finding on the brain scan," said Douglas Peterson, who monitors symptoms at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center. He added, "Obviously, the more information you have the better off you're going to be because a) you can find out what is wrong; b) they can start looking at research to find a treatment for it; and c) they can look at something to prevent it from happening the next time they deploy troops" (Los Angeles Times/Minneapolis Star Tribune, 12/1). "There's a hope for treatment and there's hope for being able to monitor the progress of the disease," Fleckenstein said (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/1).