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Gulf War veterans suffered brain damage after chemical exposure, study says


November 30, 1999
Web posted at: 1:01 p.m. EST (1801 GMT)

CHICAGO (CNN) -- A new study of two small groups of Gulf War veterans indicates their brains may have been damaged by chemicals they were exposed to while serving in the region, researchers reported Tuesday at a meeting of radiologists.

"The findings suggest a substantial loss of brain cells in the areas that could explain the veterans' symptoms," said Dr. James Fleckenstein, a professor of radiology at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where the research was conducted.

VideoCNN's Brian Cabell looks at some of the veterans in the study
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The U.S. military

Fleckenstein said while the existence of Gulf War Syndrome is considered controversial, the study suggests there is a physical mechanism -- the exposure to neurotoxic chemicals -- responsible for the veterans' problems.

The study participants who complained of Gulf War Syndrome symptoms all had lower than normal levels of the chemical NAA or N-Acetyl-Aspartate in their brains.

The lower levels, according to researchers, indicate the loss of brain cells in the brain stem and basal ganglia. The brain stem controls some of the body's reflexes. The basal ganglia is the brain's switching center for movement, memory and emotion.

"If you have it from the brain stem, you may have problems with attention or balance. If you have it from the basal ganglia, center of mood, you may have depression, difficulty concentrating and pain problems," said Fleckenstein.

Dr. Robert Haley, another UT Southwestern researcher, said tests using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) determined some veterans had up to 25 percent lower levels of the chemical, depending on which toxic chemicals they were exposed to and at what level.

He said the research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, indicated the loss of NAA showed up in veterans with a genetic predisposition for brain injury. Compared with healthy veterans, the sick veterans were born with a low blood level of the enzyme which breaks down the chemical nerve gas Sarin, the researchers said.

Haley said the study was based on the theory that veterans were exposed to differing levels and combinations of neurotoxic chemicals including chemical nerve gas, anti-nerve gas tablets, and DEET, the chemical used in insect repellents.

MRS scans of 22 veterans who complained of illness indicated they had levels of NAA in their brains 10 to 25 percent lower than 18 healthy veterans. The same results turned up on a second test of six other Gulf War veterans.

Up to 100,000 of the 700,000 soldiers who served during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield in 1990 to 1991 have complained of suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, the researchers said. Their symptoms have included memory loss, balance disturbances, sleep disorders, depression, exhaustion, body pain, chronic diarrhea and concentration problems.

Fleckenstein said the results, which he called "highly statistically significant," indicate more research on the veterans should be conducted.

"Some of these patients are profoundly disabled -- there are stories of some real heroes who now barely are able to drive to the store," he said.

Results of the study were reported at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

The Pentagon's response to the study was cautious, saying the Department of Defense is looking forward to receiving the final results of this research. Until then, it says it would be inappropriate for the DOD to comment on an unreleased research paper.

If this study does in fact explain the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, Haley and his colleagues say there may be treatment. They are now giving some Gulf War patients psychiatric medications in hopes of repairing the brain damage.

Correspondent Brian Cabell contributed to this report.

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Welcome To RSNA Link
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas
DefenseLINK - Official Web Site of the U.S. Department of Defense
Central Intelligence Agency
Gulf War Veteran Resource Pages
SVAC Hearing Testimony
Frontline: Last Battle of the Gulf War - PBS
Browse GulfLINK Declassified Documents
Gulf War Syndrome
Skepticism - Gulf War Syndrome
Chemical Injury Information Network
Persian Gulf War Syndrome - Chronic Illness Research Foundation
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