By Ed Timms and Sue Goetinck
The Dallas Morning News
December 1st 1999
Ailing Persian Gulf War veterans suffered brain damage that researchers believe was caused by exposure to chemicals, according to a study made public Tuesday.
A sophisticated medical test found abnormally low levels of a brain chemical in a test group of veterans who, since the 1991 conflict, have experienced a variety of mysterious symptoms, including fatigue, memory loss, sleeping disorders and chronic diarrhea. Low levels of the chemical are a well-established indicator of brain injury.
Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas conducted the research and presented their findings on Tuesday at the 85th annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
“We’ve now shown definitively that the Gulf War syndrome is due to a brain injury,” said Dr. Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern and the lead researcher in a long-running examination of ailing Gulf War vets. “It’s not a psychological problem due to stress. This gives us a powerful tool for a diagnostic test to determine who has this and who doesn’t.”
Dr. Haley added that he’s optimistic that a treatment can be developed.
“We hope that announcement of these findings will inspire a lot of other researchers out there to see if we can cure this thing,” he said. “The most frustrating thing to me is that we’ve not tried treatments.”
Dr. Haley also suggested that the medical test could be used to help ailing vets receive service-connected health treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many veterans have fought a long battle to get government officials to even acknowledge that they’re sick. Some have accused the VA of failing to provide adequate treatment.
“I hope . . . that this will turn the tide, so people will say, ‘Yes, there is something actually wrong – and the political repercussions be damned,’ ” said Charles Townsend, 49, an Army veteran of the Gulf War. “Maybe America will do something right.”
Couldn’t hold a job
After returning from the Persian Gulf, Mr. Townsend, a Dallas resident, said he had difficulty holding a job because of his symptoms. At one point, he lived in his truck. He obtained a disability pension from the VA earlier this year.
“We’ve still got guys who’ve never been able to collect a penny,” said Jerry Jones, 57, of Leicester, N.C., another ailing vet who served in the Persian Gulf with the Navy’s 24th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion. “Some have lost their homes. Some have had to move back in with their parents . . . . They’ve lost their businesses.”
Mr. Jones, who also served in Vietnam, had attained the rank of senior chief petty officer, one of the highest non-commissioned ranks in the Navy, by the time he was sent to the Persian Gulf. When he returned, ailing, he had to retire from his state job as a mechanic eight years early and lost two-thirds of his retirement. Between medical costs and lost income, he estimates his own financial loss at between $250,000 and $500,000.
He said his attitude about the government and the military “has changed drastically” because of his experience.
“When I first went to Vietnam, I was told that if anything happens to you, we’ll take care of you,” he said. “That’s an illusion.”
Defense Department officials have said that they are aggressively trying to explain why Gulf War vets are sick but acknowledge that mistakes were made in the past.
At a Tuesday news conference, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department has “invested a commitment of time and effort and $133 million to fund 145 ongoing research projects to try to come up with an answer or a partial answer . . . on Gulf War illness.”
“So we very much look forward to receiving Dr. Haley’s work, taking a much closer look – and I hope he’s right.”
Rear Adm. Quigley also cautioned that “there are many steps to go here” and that he would like to see a peer review in a professional journal.
Dr. Haley said the research is under review at a major medical journal that focuses on radiology.
The radiology study received funding from the Defense Department and the Perot Foundation of Dallas. A total of 22 ailing veterans and 18 healthy subjects were subjected to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which uses radio waves in a strong magnetic field to measure chemicals in the body.
The veterans who complained of illness had up to 25 percent lower levels of the brain chemical NAA (N-Acetyl-Aspartate) in the brain stem, which controls some reflexes, and in the basal ganglia, which control some functions of movement, memory and emotion.
“Some of these patients are profoundly disabled. There are stories of some real heroes who now barely are able to drive to the store,” said Dr. James L. Fleckenstein, a UT Southwestern professor of radiology who presented the findings at Tuesday’s meeting. “Although the existence of Gulf War syndrome is considered controversial, this is evidence supporting a physical mechanism for the problem.”
Radiologists did not know whether the patients they were testing were healthy or sick.
Other medical scanners, such as standard magnetic resonance imaging, had not detected changes in the brains of ailing Gulf War vets. Dr. Haley said that indicates the brain cells “are still there in the brain but are injured,” which gives him hope that some kind of medication can be found that will help the veterans with their symptoms.
“It’s time to stop debating whether there’s a Gulf War syndrome,” he said. “These findings show that there’s a Gulf War disease, which needs to be treated.”
He plans to begin a larger study next year. There’s some urgency, he said, because the health of some veterans is worsening.
The findings made public Tuesday are the latest in a series of advances by UT Southwestern scientists who are studying ailing Gulf War veterans.
One earlier study concluded that veterans born with low levels of an enzyme that destroys chemical toxins were more likely to suffer brain damage from exposure to low levels of nerve agents and pesticides, explaining why some service members exposed to chemicals became ill and others did not.
Another determined that Gulf War vets used or were exposed to chemicals and medications that were not necessarily harmful apart but that could be toxic if combined. Those included pyridostigmine bromide, a drug administered to service members in the hope that it would help them survive a nerve gas attack, low levels of chemical nerve gas, the insecticide DEET and pesticides.