For decades after Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, doctors, scientists and the Department of Veterans Affairs have all struggled to determine what happened to the roughly 25-30% of Gulf War veterans who suffer from a mysterious mix of symptoms from a seemingly unknown cause. The condition and its host of symptoms became known as Gulf War Syndrome, or Gulf War Illness, and wasn’t immediately recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 1997, Congress found that the VA and Department of Defense did not listen to Gulf War veterans affected by the series of illnesses associated with Gulf War Syndrome, acknowledging there was no “silver bullet” definition or diagnosis. They also blamed the VA for writing off the condition as post-traumatic stress disorder.
A Congressional committee went on to suggest a number of possible underlying causes of the condition that were present in the war zone, including depleted uranium dust and pyridostigmine bromide used to protect against chemical nerve agents. They blamed the VA for its lack of experience in environmental health and toxicology.
In that same committee meeting, the House of Representatives recommended a medical research body other than the VA or DoD look into the condition, and that’s exactly what happened.
A body of research has been conducted that has since shed new light on Gulf War Syndrome. The VA has since recognized a number of conditions that are now “presumptive,” meaning gulf War veterans don’t need to prove they happened as a result of military service. This includes:
- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)
- Gastrointestinal Disorders
- Other undiagnosed conditions, such as weight loss, fatigue, unexplainable pain and some heart conditions
- “Brain Fog”
Researchers at Georgetown University have also discovered physical evidence of the condition in the brains of Gulf War veterans. Nerve fibers connected to pain receptors in the brains of these veterans fire differently than in other humans. This means Gulf War veterans could feel pain while doing something as simple as changing a shirt.
The same researcher who conducted that study, Dr. James Baraniuk, also found that there may be two distinct subsets of Gulf War Illness. By scanning the brains of more than 30 Gulf War veterans before and after moderate exercise, Baraniuk noted changes in two areas of the brain, each correlating to a different set of symptoms.
One group experienced changes in the area of the brain responsible for processing pain, which was consistent with their symptoms. The other group, who reported cardiovascular symptoms, specifically, increased heart rates while doing something as simple as standing up did not have significant activity in that part of the brain.
Instead, the brain of the cardiac-centric group showed decreased activity in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for fine motor control, cognition, pain, and emotion. Healthy patients showed no changes.
"While these findings present new challenges to treating people with Gulf War illness, they also present new opportunities," said Stuart Washington, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow and lead author on the study.