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Study Found Brain Changes in Veterans with Gulf War Illness

Update Date: Oct 16, 2013 01:07 PM EDT

During the Gulf War, many military personnel and civilian employees were exposed to a wide range of toxins, such as sarin gas, depleted uranium and pesticides. Researchers believe that exposure to these different types of fumes caused varying symptoms ranging from muscle pains and rashes to cognitive complications. Based from these symptoms, veterans from this particular war were diagnosed with a chronic, multi-symptom disorder called Gulf War Illness (GWI). In a new study, researchers examined veterans with GWI and found definitive changes in their brains tied to memory loss.

"More than 250,000 troops, or approximately 25% of those deployed during the first Persian Gulf War, have been diagnosed with Gulf War Illness (GWI). Although medical professionals have recognized the chronic and often disabling illness for almost two decades, brain changes that uniquely identify GWI have been elusive until now," Bart Rypma, principal investigator at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, said according to a press release.

For this study, the researchers focused on three specific factors of working memory, which were accuracy, speed and efficiency. After measuring these aspects in GWI patients, the researchers found that when the tasks from these tests became more difficult, veterans with GWI performed them with less efficiency when compared to healthy veterans. Veterans with GWI were also less accurate and had lower levels of activity in their prefrontal brain areas. When these regions are negatively affected, people's ability to come up with strategies in cognitively demanding situations is severely jeopardized.

"Our results revealed that at the root of cognitive issues in GWI patients are profound working memory deficits that correlate with a unique brain change visible in the fMRI scanner. These results support an empirical link between exposure to neurotoxic chemicals, specifically sarin nerve gas, and cognitive deficits and neurobiological changes in the brain," said Rypma. "Implementing interventions that improve working memory could have positive effects on many aspects of daily life from the ability to complete a shopping list, match names with faces, all the way to elevating mood."

The study was published in Clinical Psychological Science.

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