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Small study finds problem in Gulf War vets' cell function

Apr. 8, 2014 - 04:20PM   |  
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A minuscule study of cell function in veterans of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War could have widespread impact on future research into Gulf War illness.

Researchers at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine found that the mitochondria — the cell’s power plants, responsible for converting oxygen and glucose into chemical energy — in veterans with Gulf War illness don’t function as well as mitochondria in unaffected individuals.

By testing recovery time of muscles at the cellular level following exercise, the researchers found that affected Gulf War veterans “displayed significantly delayed recovery.”

According to the study, recovery time in normal individuals was less than 31 seconds. But all except one Gulf War illness veteran measured recovery time between 35 seconds and 70 seconds.

The study was small — just seven veterans with Gulf War illness and seven controls. But researcher Dr. Beatrice Golomb described the difference in results as “visibly striking,” with “a large average difference as statistically significant.”

She said the mitochondrial impairment could account for many of the symptoms of Gulf War Illness.

“The classic presentation for mitochondrial illness involves multiple symptoms spanning many domains, similar to what we see in Gulf War illness. These classically include fatigue, cognitive and other brain-related challenges, muscle problems and exercise intolerance, with neurological and gastrointestinal problems also common,” Golomb said.

Golomb believes the evidence could explain why an antioxidant, the coenzyme Q10, helped relieve some of the symptoms of Gulf War illness, including headaches, problems focusing and fatigue, in another study she conducted.

The research needs replication and further study, possibly using different mitochondrial assessment tools for further validation, the researchers said.

But as the UC-San Diego public affairs staff noted, the study does imply that “Gulf War illness is not in veterans’ heads, but in their mitochondria.”

“Some have sought to ascribe Gulf War illness to stress, but stress has proven not to be an independent predictor of the condition,” Golomb said. “On the other hand, gulf veterans are known to have been widely exposed to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, a chemical class found in organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, nerve gas and nerve gas pre-treatment pills given to troops ... [with] known mitochondrial toxicity.”

The study was funded by a UC-San Diego Academic Senate Award and the Defense Department.

The findings were published online in the journal PloS ONE on March 27.

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