Gulf War Illness Causes Brain to Process Pain Differently

By Gemma Tarlach | March 20, 2013 4:00 pm

Turns out that Gulf War Illness may be in sufferers’ heads after all — specifically in the parts of their brains that process pain.

For years, thousands of veterans who served in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War complained of problems such as body pain, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction, but a cause for their symptoms remained elusive, and sufferers were often dismissed or given vague diagnoses. A new study published online today reveals the first bodily proof of Gulf War Illness, as the collection of symptoms is popularly called: structural damage in the brain. This damage is not found in individuals unaffected by the disease.

Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center used diffusion tensor imaging, a type of functional magnetic resonance imaging, to scan the brains of 31 veterans with the illness and 20 control subjects. Unlike regular MRIs, this type of scan can reveal abnormalities in axons that carry nerve impulses between different parts of the brain.

The scans showed the veterans in the study had significant axonal damage. In particular, damage to a bundle of axons called the right inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus correlated with the severity of pain and fatigue. This bundle of nerve fibers connects brain areas involved in the processing and perception of pain and fatigue. The bundle also carries signals of unexpected stimuli in the subject’s environment, which could explain other Gulf War Illness symptoms, such as increased vigilance and distractibility, according to the scientists.

“The scans tell us these axons are not working in a normal fashion,” said lead author Rakib Rayhan, adding that the damage appeared different than axonal damage seen in people with other neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, or those with major depression.

The cause of Gulf War Illness remains unknown, though researchers suspect it may be linked to exposure to nerve agents and other toxic chemicals during the campaign. More than one-fourth of the nearly 700,000 veterans deployed during the Persian Gulf War have reported symptoms ranging from mild to severe.

Scientists involved in the axonal damage study noted their findings require further investigation, but could lead to development of a therapy in the future. For the present, however, the study offers validation for Gulf War Illness sufferers, say the research team, many of whom have felt their symptoms were not taken seriously.

Image by CW02 Bailey; courtesy Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense / National Archives

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • William Fuzi

    After we were given the Hepatitis B Vaccine in early Februray 1991 so many Marines got sick that the entire 1st Marine Division was ordered to take Ciprofloxacin 500mg 2x a day. Command thought that we were infected with something and made everyone take antibiotics, but I think it was the vaccine for Hep B

    • william

      every baby born in the states is given the hep b vaccine when born or shortly after

  • Jona Sassenhagen

    Can you reference some of the studies about the “right inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus” that discuss how that fiber tract is “correlated with the severity of pain and fatigue. This bundle of nerve fibers connects brain areas involved in the processing and perception of pain and fatigue. The bundle also carries signals of unexpected stimuli in the subject’s environment”?

  • Georg Schoen

    “”suspect it may be linked to exposure to nerve agents and other toxic chemicals””
    Ridiculous! Ever heard about the fact that Iraqus “weapons of mass desruction” were a silly propaganda lie by the American president?

    • GWV

      So. Don’t believe Bush who supposedly lied without a real motive, but believe Obamao’s VA denials of illnesses that could cost 100s of millions of dollars in veterans compensation payments. There will always be those who lie, but 100,000 veterans who lie? I think I will believe them and not you “jonfrum and guest”.

    • Dan Talley

      Care to see my letter from the pentegon stating I was exposed to serin and cycloserin in Iraq? I remember the chem detectors going off. We were ordered to take out the batteries. If you weren’t there how can you say it didn’t happen?

  • Lou Maglione

    My wife Bonnie had the same symptoms for many years before she passed in 2010. After many doctors told her to seek psychiatric help, we finally received a diagnosis from Dr. William Rea of the Environmental Health Center – Dallas (Texas).
    Bonnie had worked in and around auto factories for twenty years – she was exposed to strong concentrations of airborne petrochemicals on a daily basis. In combination with that exposure, her excretory systems did not function well enough to eliminate the toxins. Over the years, she slowly developed the same symptoms as the Gulf War vets (who had presumably been exposed more intensely over a shorter period) – memory and cognitive problems, “phantom” pain, etc.
    Dr. Rea tried to treat her with sauna (to help her body detox), but that resulted in temporary stroke-like symptoms. He advised her to avoid exposure to petrochemicals in her home life – no new paint, no carpets (glue), no natural gas heat, etc. We moved to Yuma, Arizona and lived there for several years. While she was never pain-free, she did recover a great deal of her cognitive ability, and exhibited a significantly greater tolerance for petrochemicals in her environment before she passed (of pneumonia).

  • David K Winnett Jr

    Dr. Baraniuk and his staff at Georgetown University in Washington, DC have worked tirelessly for many years, searching for answers on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of American Veterans whose lives have been turned upside down by Gulf War Illnesses. He has prevailed against substantial medical and scientific odds and mindless government bureaucracies that caused others to give up.

    Without question, Dr. James Baraniuk is a hero to all Persian Gulf War Veterans and their families.

    As a four-time member of the CongressionallyDirected Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) panel that evaluated the funding merits of Gulf War Illness studies proposed by Dr. Baraniuk and other institutions, I feel blessed knowing that our panels seem to have made the correct recommendations as to which studies were funded, and which were not.

    It’s been a long hard road for those of us living with the debilitating pain and fatigue that that are associated with Gulf War Illnesses. I truly hope that this long journey may soon come to a fruitful end.

    Semper Fidelis,
    David K. Winnett, Jr.
    Captain, USMC (Ret.)

  • JonFrum

    I’m still not buying it. Putting a name on it doesn’t make it real. Viet Nam veterans who looked at Agent Orange containers complained of illness. Now, a new war, a new set of symptoms. Until I see a plausible causal agent – and not just hand-waving. And you should be very skeptical of brain scan studies – they are notorious for giving data that could be read in multiple ways.


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