A “toxic synergy” between caffeine or adrenalin and a potent drug that was intended to help soldiers survive a nerve-gas attack might explain the symptoms of some ailing Gulf War veterans.
That’s the conclusion of scientists in Mississippi and Florida after preliminary research.
In animal tests, the toxicity of pyrodostigmine bromide - the anti-nerve gas drug - increases when combined with caffeine or adrenaline, said Dr. James I. Moss, a Florida researcher.
Dr. Arthur Hume, a toxicologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is working with Moss. The research focused on “possible interactions” that might produce symptoms like the ones Desert Storm veterans have reported, he said.
Caffeine, whether in soft drinks or coffee, was not in short supply as U.S. forces headed for war. Some pilots, flying multiple missions, even took caffeine tablets to stay alert.
Similarly, adrenaline produced by the stress of possible combat would not be an uncommon phenomenon, said Hume, a Korean War veteran.
“When most people think of stress, they think about their jobs or having enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month,” he said. “There has been no stress in my life like combat stress. … And these guys also had to worry about chemical and biological weapons being used.”
Their research into the interaction between “PB” and caffeine, or adrenaline and other natural substances produced by stress, is continuing. The scientists are preparing a research proposal for the Department of Defense.
Moss emphasized that the research is at an early stage and that the results using laboratory mice are promising and merit more study.
His involvement in Gulf War research is something of a fluke.
An entomologist by training, he was studying cockroaches while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 1993, his research led him to conclude that when combined, PB and DEET, a widely used insect repellent, were much more toxic than when used separately.
He contacted a company that produces an insect repellent using DEET and officials at the USDA. Agency scientists had developed the repellent in the 1950s. Later, he testified before a congressional hearing.
Moss said his cockroach research and his findings were not well received by superiors. His contract job was not renewed soon after he appeared before Congress, although he had worked for the agency several years.
He has since worked a series of temporary jobs but has been unable to find permanent work.