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Vets with Gulf War Syndrome show brain changes

Updated: Oct 22, 2013 02:42 PM
© US Army / Sgt. 1st Class Michael Guillory © US Army / Sgt. 1st Class Michael Guillory

TUESDAY, Oct. 22 (HealthDay News) -- A new study shows changes in the brains of Gulf War soldiers who are believed to have been sickened by exposure to chemical weapons and may provide insight into why they often report memory problems.

The study appeared online Oct. 15 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

"More than 250,000 troops, or approximately 25 percent of those deployed during the first Persian Gulf War, have been diagnosed with Gulf War Illness," study co-author Bart Rypma, principal investigator at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, said in a journal news release.

"Although medical professionals have recognized the chronic and often disabling illness for almost two decades, brain changes that uniquely identify Gulf War Illness have been elusive until now," he said. The condition is also known as Gulf War Syndrome.

The brain changes revealed by the study are linked to "working memory," which allows people to store memories in the short term. Compared to healthy veterans, people with Gulf War Illness were slower on tests of working memory that examined accuracy, speed and efficiency. Efficiency declined as the test became tougher.

"Difficulty remembering has been the most common, unexplained impairment resulting from service in the 1991 Persian Gulf War," study co-author Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said in the news release. "This functional MRI study provides the first objective evidence showing the exact malfunctions in the brain's memory circuits that underlie these chemically induced memory problems."

Rypma said the findings "support an empirical link between exposure to neurotoxic chemicals, specifically sarin nerve gas, and [thinking ability] deficits and neurobiological changes in the brain."

"Implementing interventions that improve working memory could have positive effects on many aspects of daily life, from the ability to complete a shopping list to [matching] names with faces, all the way to elevating mood," he said.

More information

For more about health problems facing Gulf War veterans, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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