Toxic Exposures to Blame for Illness in Gulf War Veterans

Environmental health scientists at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) and colleagues from a dozen other institutions have confirmed that pesticide and other toxic exposures are responsible for the debilitating symptoms seen in Gulf War Illness (GWI), affecting 250,000 U.S. Gulf War veterans.

The report, published in a special issue of the journal Cortex to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, is a comprehensive review of studies conducted on GWI.

Researchers found that veterans’ neurological problems are directly linked to ingestion of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) (prohphylactic medication intended to protect troops against the effects of nerve gas), along with exposure to the nerve-gas agents, sarin and cyclosarin, and oil well fire emissions.

These toxins cause nervous and immune system damage, including neuroendocrine and immune dysfunction, autonomic nervous system irregularities, and even reduced white and gray matter in veterans’ brains.

Veterans suffering with GWI experience acute and chronic fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, muscle pain, dizziness, skin rashes, respiratory disorders, and memory problems. Studies have shown that deployed troops suffer higher rates of stroke, ALS, and brain cancer compared to non-deployed ones.

Researchers encourage that ongoing study into the mechanisms and etiology of the health problems of Gulf War veterans is critical for developing new treatments for GWI and related neurological dysfunction.

One such clinical trial currently underway, The Gulf War Synergy Trial, is targeting mitochondrial dysfunction as a treatment for the symptoms of GWI.

Gulf War Illness shares similar features to mitochondrial illness. Researchers at UC San Diego have noted that impaired mitochondrial function accounts for numerous features of Gulf War Illness.

“The classic presentation for mitochondrial illness involves multiple symptoms spanning many domains, similar to what we see in Gulf War Illness. These classically include fatigue, cognitive and other brain-related challenges, muscle problems and exercise intolerance, with neurological and gastrointestinal problems also common.”

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