- CHICAGO (CNN) -- A new study
of two small groups of Gulf War veterans indicates their brains were 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.
- 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'
- 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- He said the research, which has not yet been peer reviewed,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
- 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