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Brain Damage May Hold Key To Gulf War Syndrome Low levels of Sarin Gas.

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Posted 05 October 2004 - 11:19 AM

Brain Damage May Hold Key to Gulf War Syndrome
Mon Oct 4, 7:02 PM ET Health - HealthDay

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Oct. 4 (HealthDayNews) -- Since returning from service in the first Gulf War (news - web sites), former Army sergeant Charles Towsend, 55, has suffered from dramatic personality changes, lack of attention, disordered sleep, chronic diarrhea, skin lesions, and other symptoms linked to what's been called "Gulf War Syndrome."

"I was furious at doctors, furious at everybody, I hated the world," the Dallas resident said.

While he says he's learned to control that anger over time, Townsend remains on 100 percent disability, can't work and is doubtful he will ever sustain a healthy romantic relationship.

"My total life is destroyed," he said.

Townsend's story finds echoes in the lives of thousands of other veterans sent home from that 1991 conflict.

"We sent 700,000 troops over to the first Gulf War, and between 100,000 and 150,000 are ill," said researcher Dr. Robert W. Haley, a professor of medicine and chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Haley has long been searching for a root cause that would explain the pattern of seemingly unrelated symptoms seen in these veterans. Now, in a study published in the October issue of the American Journal of Medicine, he and his colleagues say they may have found it.

According to Haley, low-level wartime exposure to sarin nerve gas and similar agents appears to have damaged cells in the brain's basal ganglia and brainstem, areas in the "primitive" part of the brain responsible for what's known as the parasympathetic nervous system.

"The parasympathetic nervous system controls all of those unconscious functions that your body does constantly," Haley said. From its headquarters in the basal ganglia and brainstem, the parasympathetic nervous system uses the vagus nerve -- which runs from the brainstem to the pelvis -- to control such disparate body functions as heartbeat, intestinal movement, gall bladder function and sexual organ response.

The parasympathetic system also kicks into high gear while people sleep. According to Haley, "it's responsible for the restorative functions of the brain," providing that refreshed feeling after a restful night's sleep.

Haley theorized that damage to the parasympathetic nervous system might be key in explaining the motley assemblage of symptoms Townsend and other Gulf War vets experience.

To find out, he and his team used new technology to monitor and compare the 24-hour heartbeat patterns of 22 ill Gulf War veterans to those of 19 healthy, matched control subjects. They zeroed in on heart rate because it is closely tied to the firing of the vagus nerve, which is, in turn, controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.

As expected, the activity of the parasympathetic nervous systems of healthy volunteers was lower during waking hours, but then peaked during the restorative sleep-time period.

On the other hand, "in the sick Gulf War veterans, it almost didn't change at all," Haley said. "It didn't switch on when they went to sleep -- in fact, it went down further compared to daytime levels."

Haley said this type of parasympathetic dysfunction could explain a common complaint of ill Gulf War vets -- a feeling of fatigue even after a full night's sleep. "They're miserable the rest of the day -- that's what chronic fatigue means in this group," he said.

Parasympathetic dysfunction would also explain other symptoms common in Gulf War illness, such as gall bladder dysfunction, personality changes, chronic diarrhea and sexual problems.

Rat studies conducted by scientists at the University of New Mexico appear to support this theory, Haley said. Researchers there exposed the rodents to very low levels of nerve gas, then examined their brains a month later.

The result: Damage to the basal ganglia and brainstem, exactly those areas responsible for parasympathetic function.

"What's really important about these findings is that it examines a group of symptoms that were frequently, in the past, labeled by the Department of Defense (news - web sites) and Veterans' Affairs as 'mysterious symptoms' in a 'mysterious disease.' But now we can connect them all with one abnormality and show that these are part of one process," Haley said.

In fact, after resisting for years the idea of a specific Gulf War illness, the Department of Defense has become a supporter of his research, and funded this latest study, Haley said.

For long-suffering veterans like Townsend, finding the cause of the illness may someday lead to effective therapies.

"First we go down to the basics and find out what's going wrong, to understand the disease at a cellular or even molecular level," Haley said. "We might then be able to come up with a treatment."

And what of soldiers fighting now in the second Gulf War conflict? Haley believes most will be spared any nerve gas-related syndrome. He pointed out that most of the nerve gas exposure to troops during Gulf War I occurred when Allied forces blew up enemy munitions or chemical-storage facilities.

This time round, however, "the military took great pains to avoid blowing up [suspected] nerve gas depots," Haley said. "They didn't bomb any facilities they suspected of having weapons of mass destruction, and they were also using more sensitive indicators, better masks and gear."

More information

For the latest on research into Gulf War Syndrome (news - web sites), check with the Department of Veterans Affairs.


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