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WASHINGTON — Gulf War illness, the series of symptoms ranging from headaches to memory loss to chronic fatigue that plagues one of four veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, is due to damage to the autonomic nervous system, a study released Monday shows.
"This is the linchpin," said the study's lead author, Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"The disease itself is so difficult to express and to understand," Haley said, explaining that veterans described simply that they "don't feel well" or "can't function," without being able to further explain a disease that affects the automatic functions of their bodies, such as heat regulation, sleep or even their heartbeats.
"Docs don't know what the disease is, so they can't help," Haley said. "But if you can figure out what the disease is, the other problems will fall in line."
Researchers spent 15 years researching a hypothesis, and then "we planned the ultimate study that proved that hypothesis," Haley said.
Along with Steven Vernino, chief of the neuromuscular division at Southwestern, Haley sent 97 veterans through 25 tests, including brain imaging, in seven days. The group had been drawn from a sample of 8,000 Gulf War veterans. The study was published Monday in Archives of Neurology.
"Veterans have high faith in Dr. Haley's dedicated and informative research," said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense and a Gulf War veteran. "This finding is important because for the first time physicians who care for Gulf War veterans now have a medical explanation for many of the unusual symptoms."
The team conducted several studies, and then built a theory based on the results of that work.
The doctors had funding from Congress until 2010, when they were dropped by the Department of Veterans Affairs after being accused of wasting millions of dollars in research money. That came directly after a 2009 study from Haley showed that neurotoxins such as anti-nerve agent pills, insect repellent and the nerve agent sarin caused neurological changes to the brain, and that the changes seem to correlate with different symptoms.
After they lost funding, Haley and the other researchers continued their work on their own time.
"This is the most important study of all," Haley said. "The veterans want to know what's wrong with them. Now, for the first time, all the doctors in the country can say, ‘Oh, maybe these are autonomic symptoms.' If you're not thinking autonomic, the symptoms can sound kind of flaky."
For years Gulf War veterans have been told the symptoms were all in their heads, which Haley and other researchers say isn't true.
There is no known treatment for Gulf War illness, Haley said, but a diagnosis can lead to clinical trials and a possible solution.
Veterans of suffering from Gulf War illness tend to fall in three categories:
• Syndrome 1, or cognitive and depression problems.
• Syndrome 2, or confusion ataxia, which is similar to early Alzheimer's disease.
• Syndrome 3, or severe chronic body pain.
Haley said studies released in the next several weeks will include theories as to what caused the syndromes.
The study should encourage Congress to devote more money for Gulf War illness research, Sullivan said. The disease affects up to 250,000 veterans, according to the Institute of Medicine.
"Knowing the medical basis for a disease focuses the search for specific treatments and makes it possible to test them in clinical trials," Sullivan said. "If VA continues to be reluctant to fund research, then Congress should hold hearings that prompt VA to do the right thing for our veterans."