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.
CNN's Brian Cabell looks at some of the veterans in the study
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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He said the research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, indicated the loss of NAA showed up in veterans with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
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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Clinton announces new money for Gulf War syndrome research
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Pentagon's effort doesn't mollify
October 31, 1997
Report: Panel attacks Pentagon on Gulf illness study
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Pentagon notifying 100,000 soldiers of possible nerve gas exposure
July 24, 1997
Government study finds clue to Gulf War Syndrome
January 21, 1997
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