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June 30, 2013

VETERANS’ CORNER: Studies show impact to brains of Gulf War vets

By JIM VINES

Researchers at Georgetown University, led by Dr. Rakib U. Rayhan, have discovered through brain scans the loss of brain matter in two regions of the brain of Gulf War veterans.

As background information the authors informed that of the approximately 700,000 soldiers who served in Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991), nearly 30 percent developed Gulf War illness (Gulf War Syndrome). This illness presents itself with symptoms such as cognitive deficits, autonomic dysfunction, severe fatigue, and chronic widespread pain that implicate the central nervous system (CNS).

The researchers and scientists in this study set out to determine what the casual relationship might be between exercise, the brain and alterations in symptoms. They recruited 38 volunteers, 28 Gulf War veterans and 10 controls (10 matched people who were not veterans). The participants underwent two exercise stress tests as well as two MRI scans, one before and one after the tests. The aim was to see whether there were any serial changes in pain.

The scientists found that Gulf War illness appears to have two different forms, depending on which brain regions have deteriorated. Their findings explain why doctors have consistently found that not all Gulf War veterans have the same symptoms and complaints. After undergoing physical exercise tests, it became evident there were subgroups with different symptoms among the veterans. In 18 of the veterans, pain levels rose after completing the exercise stress test. The MRI scans revealed loss of brain matter in regions next to those associated with the regulation of pain.

Those veterans that had to do cognitive tasks (thinking, memory, judgement, intelligence), the scans showed that the basal ganglia part of the brain was used more, possibly a compensatory strategy used by the brain that is commonly found among Alzheimer’s disease patients, as well as those with other degenerative disorders.

Just because these veterans have similar symptoms and atrophies to patients with degenerative disorders does not mean that they will progress to Alzheimer’s disease or some other disorder.

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