Veterans who fought against Iraq in the Gulf War and now battle debilitating symptoms of what’s been called Gulf War Syndrome have widespread inflammation in the brain, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital confirmed for the first time.
“We are documenting objective neurochemical changes in the brains of these people which is a way to validate their complaints,” said Marco Loggia, whose laboratory at MGH focuses on understanding brain inflammation and pain in humans.
The study included 23 veterans, 15 of whom had Gulf War Illness, as it is identified in the study, as well as 25 healthy patients without GWI. All of their brains were scanned using positron-emission tomography imaging which looked for elevated levels of a special protein that accumulates in the brain and spinal cord when there is inflammation.
The study found extensive inflammation in the brains of veterans with GWI, mostly in regions that are involved in functions such as memory, concentration and reasoning, which could serve as a guidepost for identifying and developing new therapies for people with the condition.
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“That should motivate us to look at ways of treating Gulf War Illness using strategies such as targeting inflammation,” said Loggia, adding that many drug companies are currently working to make a treatment to reduce neuroinflammation.
About 30 percent of soldiers who fought in the 1991 Gulf War suffer from GWI, “Often these people are stigmatized,” said Loggia.
Patients suffer from chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia and issues with attention, memory and cognition.
“We don’t know exactly what happened to these veterans but there’s a series of possible culprits,” said Loggia.
Those possibilities include exposure to nerve gas, medicine given to protect against the neurotoxin, exposure to pesticides, extreme temperature changes, sleep deprivation and physical exertion during deployment, according to the study.
Loggia and other MGH researchers collaborated with the Gulf War Illness Consortium at Boston University, which helped them recruit Gulf War veterans from across the country.
Loggia described them as “a brotherhood” eager to help doctors and researchers. “They are comrades,” Loggia said.
The Gulf War, fought between August 1990 and February 1991, was waged by coalition forces from 34 nations led by the United States against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.
The chronic symptoms of GWI may affect as many as 200,000 to 250,000 veterans out of the nearly 700,000 deployed to that region, according to the BU Gulf War Illness Consortium.
Many of the symptoms overlap with those of another condition, fibromyalgia, which led Loggia to perform the research.
Research by Loggia’s lab also implicated neuroinflammation in a number of additional conditions such as depression, anxiety, autism, multiple sclerosis and Huntington’s disease.