Brain scans of veterans with symptoms of Gulf War illness show neurological differences between those who deployed to the region in 1990 and 1991 and a control group — a finding researchers say could explain some of the condition’s symptoms, such as chronic pain and extreme fatigue.
In a study published June 14 in the online journal PLoS One, Georgetown University researchers found that after exercise, Gulf War illness patients experienced either abnormal heart rhythms or increased sensitivity to pain.
MRIs revealed that the symptoms correlated to damage in portions of the brain that control heart rate and process pain and fatigue. The images also showed that other parts of the brain compensated somewhat for the impaired sections’ dysfunction.
The findings mean there is a physiological explanation for at least some Gulf War illness symptoms, a disorder of unexplained origin that affects up to 250,000 former service members, said study lead author Rakib Rayhan.
“Our findings may provide an understanding to the pathophysiology behind Gulf War illness,” Rayhan said.
While the study does not indicate the cause of the neurological damage or definitively link the brain changes to Gulf War service, it helps show the condition is real, according to Rayhan.
“That’s always been the largest hurdle. When you meet these veterans, visually there’s no difference ... you can’t see it, so people don’t believe them. Maybe now clinicians will be able to say there is something going on,” he said.
The research follows a study published this year by Georgetown researchers, including Rayhan, showing some Gulf War illness veterans suffered brain damage in the connective nerve fibers of the brain. Patients without Gulf War illness did not have the neuronal changes in either study.
The recent research has limitations: The study group is small — 28 veterans — and the researchers could not establish whether the changes in function were caused by the brain changes. But other experts say the studies are “a step in the right direction” to understanding the condition.
“It’s not the answer in terms of what causes Gulf War illness, but it’s hopeful,” said Dr. Joanna Katzman, a neurologist at the University of New Mexico and member of two Institute of Medicine panels that have studied the subject.
Retired Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 Carolyn Kroot enrolled in the study as part of a personal quest to determine why she suffers from debilitating fatigue and memory loss — symptoms she said began shortly after she returned from the Middle East in 1991.
While Kroot was able to complete her military career, she retired in 2005 at age 54, sidelined by chronic joint and muscle pain, constant headaches, memory problems and gastrointestinal problems.
“This is what I’ve been waiting to hear for 22 years. It’s validation that yes, there is something wrong with me and now maybe they can start looking at treatments. At least now people will believe me,” she said.
The Veterans Affairs Department offers disability compensation to service members with medically unexplained illnesses who served in the Persian Gulf. It also is conducting a long-term population study to determine how Gulf War veterans’ health has changed over time.
“VA has continued to provide quality health care and benefits to [affected veterans] and to invest in research to understand and treat Gulf War veterans’ illnesses,” said Dr. Robert Jesse, VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for health.
VA has recently come under fire for not doing enough to help affected veterans. In June 2012, members of the VA Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses wrote Secretary Eric Shinseki accusing the department of whitewashing its Gulf War research initiatives.
“There have been numerous studies showing brain damage in Gulf War veterans, exactly what veterans have been saying all along. The real travesty here is that VA is not funding this research. This has been coming from [congressional funding] that veterans have had to fight for because VA is not doing its job,” he said.
The Institute of Medicine, the medical advisory arm of the National Academy of Sciences, will hold meetings June 26-27 in Washington, D.C., to develop a clinical definition for Gulf War illness, which recent IOM panels have started calling “Chronic Multisymptom Illness.”