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Brain scans link to nerve anomalies to Gulf War Illness

Author: Kelly S. Kennedy
Publication: USA Today
Document Dated: March 21, 2013
Date Posted: March 25, 2013


WASHINGTON  Researchers say they have found physical proof that Gulf War illness is caused by damage to the brain -- and that proof may ultimately help civilians who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Using fMRI machines, the Georgetown University researchers were able to see anomalies in the bundle of nerve fibers that interpret pain signals in the brain in 31 Gulf War veterans.  The research will be published Wednesday in PLOS ONE journal.

The findings are "huge", because an fMRI allows doctors to diagnose a person with Gulf War illness quickly, said James Baraniuk, senior author and professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.  The research, he said, also shows that Gulf War illness is not psychological.

An fMRI, or "functional" MRI, is a scan that measures activity by detecting how blood flows in the brain.

Many veterans have had difficulties getting benefits and treatment for a service-connected condition because doctors assumed they were either faking it or suffering from post-traumatic stress.  "That's a problem with all physicians, " Baraniuk said.  "If it doesn't fall within their small world of known diseases, then the patient is nuts."

Gulf War illness is a series of symptoms that has affected more than 250,000 veterans of the 1991 war against Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Baraniuk said the correlation of anomalies in the brain's white matter with Gulf War illness has not been studied before.  Researchers, he said, also found that fatigue and pain worsen congruently in the veterans.

To test the veterans, they watched the way liquid moved through the brain nerve cells at rest and while the veterans were exercising.  They could locate the nerves' axons and determine how healthy they were, said Rakib Rayhan, lead author of the study.

"We're able to say, 'There is something here,'" Rayhan said.  "'Take these veterans seriously.'"

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