Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center published new work in the June 14, 2013, issue of the open access peer reviewed journal Public Library of Science that suggests that Gulf War illness may have two distinct forms depending on which brain regions have atrophied. Their study of Gulf War veterans may help explain why clinicians have consistently encountered veterans with different symptoms and complaints.
The researchers examined the brain functions of two separate groups of veterans that had Gulf War illness using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after the veterans underwent a standard treadmill stress test.
In 18 veterans, pain levels increased after completion of the exercise stress tests. fMRI scans in these participants showed loss of brain matter in adjacent regions associated with pain regulation.
During cognitive tasks, this group showed an increased use of the basal ganglia – a potential compensatory strategy the brain uses that is also seen in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Following exercise, this group lost the ability to employ their basal ganglia, suggesting an adverse response to a physiological stressor.
A separate group of 10 veterans was found to have substantial increases in heart rate after physical stress. This subgroup had atrophy in the brain stem, which regulates heart rate. .
In addition, brain scans during a cognitive task performed prior to exercise showed increased compensatory use of the cerebellum, again a trait seen in neurodegenerative disorders. Like the other group, this cohort lost the ability to use this compensatory area after exercise.
Gulf War Illness is a mysterious malady believed to have affected more than 200,000 military personnel who served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991.
Although veterans were exposed to nerve agents, pesticides and herbicides (among other toxic chemicals), no one has definitely linked any single exposure or underlying mechanism to Gulf War illness.
The symptoms of Gulf War illness – which have not been widely accepted by the public or medical professionals – range from mild to debilitating and can include widespread pain, fatigue and headache, as well as cognitive and gastrointestinal dysfunctions.
This small study hopes to present definite data that establishes Gulf War illness as a neurodegenerative disease and brings about a higher level of acceptance of Gulf War illness as a disease by both medical professionals and the public.