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BRAIN SCANS INDICATE DAMAGE IN VETERANS
NOV. 30 --- Brain scans of soldiers who believe they suffer from Gulf War illness indicate their brains were damaged by chemical exposure during the 1991 conflict, researchers reported Tuesday.
"THIS IS THE first time ever we have proof of brain damage in sick Gulf War veterans," said the lead researcher, Dr. James Fleckenstein, a professor of radiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"There's hope, now that these guys have a disease," he said. "They can be believed -- they're not malingering, they're not depressed, they're not stressed. There's a hope for treatment and there's hope for being able to monitor the progress of the disease."
As many as 30,000 veterans of the war have complained of mysterious maladies, including fatigue, joint pain and memory loss, that they say are related to their service in the Gulf.
A presidential panel looking into Gulf War illnesses said in August that it can't pinpoint causes of the ailments and recommended further study into whether there are potential genetic reasons.
In the new study, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which uses radio waves to measure body chemistry, found that veterans who believe they have the illness have up to 25 percent lower levels of a certain brain chemical than healthy Gulf War veterans.
Lower-than-normal levels of the chemical, N-acetyl-aspartate, in the brain stem and basal ganglia suggest a loss of neurons in those areas, said the researchers, who presented their findings at the 85th annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
The brain stem controls some of the body's reflexes. The basal ganglia are switching stations for nerve impulses controlling movement, memory and emotion. The basal ganglia, for example, are where the malfunctioning occurs that causes Parkinson's disease.
Fleckenstein said treatments are being explored by his colleague, Dr. Robert Haley, an associate professor of internal medicine and chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern.
Haley helped define Gulf War syndromes and identify toxic exposures associated with the likelihood of having them. He also revealed enzyme abnormalities that may be linked to the disease.
Fleckenstein said brain scans of 22 sick veterans revealed levels of N-acetyl-aspartate 10 percent to 25 percent lower than those in 18 healthy veterans. The finding held up in an additional six sick Gulf War veterans drawn from a different part of the military.
The study was blinded, meaning radiologists interpreting the results did not know which patients complained of symptoms and which were healthy.
Researchers believe soldiers who became ill were those who had a genetic vulnerability to certain chemicals used in the war, including nerve gas, the insecticide DEET, pet flea collars some wore to repel pests and the drug pyridostigmine bromide. P.B was administered to as many as 250,000 soldiers in the belief it would protect them from the toxic effects of nerve gas.
Last month, the Pentagon raised the possibility for the first time of a connection between Gulf War illness and P.B. It said more scientific study is needed before it can confirm or rule out a connection.
Lt. Col. Dian Lawhon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense's office for Gulf War illnesses, which helped fund Fleckenstein's study, said her office could not comment on the findings until it sees a complete report. Only an abstract was available.
"This is part of our continuing effort to find out what might be making Gulf War veterans sick," she said. "We haven't seen anything that would say that they found the smoking gun, though."
The brain scan study was reported on the same day as the release of a series of Pentagon-ordered reports that said focusing on the danger of traditional weapons could mask less-obvious, long-term hazards to troops.
"Even in the absence of widespread acute casualties from battle, war takes its toll on human health and well-being long after the shooting or bombing stops," said one of the reports prepared by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
The reports offered some criticism of past Pentagon strategies for protecting troops, citing a natural tendency to focus attention on known hazardous agents and saying that "too much attention on them may result in other hazards being overlooked."
By Brenda C.
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