Veterans thought to have “Gulf War syndrome” show a type of brain damage usually found in toxic poisoning victims, Dallas researchers reported Friday.
Ill veterans performed worse than healthy veterans on 59 of 71 mental tests that measure brain function, the scientists found. They did not appear to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the scientists said, nor could they have faked such a complex screening.
“These test results are indicative of brain impairment. There is something wrong with the brain,” said Dr. Jim Hom, director of the Neuropsychology Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and lead author of the new study.
He said the damage appears to be subtle, but real. “On a daily basis, they’re not functioning where they should be,” he said.
The research, also conducted by UT Southwestern’s Dr. Robert Haley and Dr. Tom Kurt, appears in the August issue of the “Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.”
“This is just one piece in a big puzzle, but it’s an important piece,” said Cecil Reynolds, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University and the journal’s editor.
However, he added that the findings are “certainly not the last word.” He said further investigation should clarify, for example, whether the weaker test results are directly related to the veterans’ military service.
The analysis is based on an examination of 26 naval reserve members complaining of symptoms such as concentration problems, muscle weakness and chronic diarrhea. They were compared with 20 healthy veterans, half of whom went to the Persian Gulf. The tests, which lasted all day, required participants to remember patterns of numbers, follow a sequence of letters and numbers simultaneously, and perform other mental exercises.
He said they appear to be suffering from an accumulation of small afflictions, none of which alone would cause problems, the same way each item adds to a grocery list.
“The longer the list, the heavier the bags are going to be,” Hom said.
The new research continues work published in January in the “Journal of the American Medical Association.” Then, the UT Southwestern research team identified not one, but three possible Gulf War syndromes, each of which may represent different degrees of severity of the same malady, they said.
The Dallas researchers said exposure to a toxic cocktail of pesticides, insect repellents and anti-nerve gas pills could be responsible for the service members’ illness.
“We are now convinced by this data that … some of them suffered brain damage from exposure to common chemicals,” Haley said. He said he is trying to organize a larger project to develop a screening test and treatment.
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