Pandemic Discovery

Clues to Gulf War Illness

A study by HMS scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital has shown widespread inflammation in the brains of veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Illness, a condition that manifests in an array of symptoms, including fatigue, chronic pain, and cognitive problems such as memory loss. Gulf War Illness affects about 30 percent of veterans who served in the 1991 conflict. Although the cause of the illness is unknown, researchers suspect several culprits: exposures to nerve gas and pesticides, the stress of extreme temperature changes, sleep deprivation, and physical exertion during deployment.

The study included twenty-three veterans, fifteen of whom had Gulf War Illness, and twenty-five healthy civilian subjects. Brain scans using positron-emission tomography imaging measured levels of a molecule that increases in the presence of neuroinflammation. The scans detected little evidence of neuroinflammation in the healthy controls and the veterans who had not been diagnosed with Gulf War Illness, but did detect extensive inflammation in the cortical regions of the brains of veterans with the illness. Cortical regions are involved in executive functions such as memory, concentration, and reasoning.

The researchers speculate that neuroinflammation occurs because the central nervous system produces inflammatory molecules to destroy invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Although this response can be beneficial in the short term, it occasionally may become exaggerated, producing the high degree of neuroinflammation detected in study participants with the illness.

In previous research, the study team implicated neuroinflammation in a number of other conditions, including chronic pain, depression, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease. The new findings, they say, may help spur a more aggressive evaluation of neuroinflammation as a potential therapeutic target.

Alshelh Z et al., Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, February 2020

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