A US government funded study reveals the war veterans who have come back after combat in the gulf are exhibiting memory impairment. Due to the exposure to chemicals and other harmful substances, there is a decreased volume of two brain regions that are closely linked to learning and memory.
Roberta White, chair of the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, revealed, at the American Academy of Neurology's 59th Annual Meeting in Boston, the early results of the study conducted. The veterans could not do simple cognitive ability tests.
"Right now, for Gulf War veterans, there is a discounting of there being any physical basis for what might be wrong with them. But I think that what is really important about this brain imaging research is that it suggests that we really need to take their symptoms seriously, that there is a clear neurological basis for their complaints," says Ms. White.
But the findings do not prove that the damage is caused by the exposure to wartime chemicals. The physical and mental symptoms experienced by the gulf veterans could be due to exposure to bio-warfare agents such as toxic pesticides and sarin gas.
Comparison of the brain scans showed that the size of the entire cortex, or grey matter, was on average 5% smaller in those with the worst symptoms, while a part of the brain called the cingulate gyrus was 6% smaller. Those with the worst symptoms also scored between 12 and 15% lower on learning and memory tests. They plan to scan more veterans and compare brain scan exposed to different chemicals. Many of the soldiers also reported more than five symptoms and others had less than five, like forgetfulness, nausea, headache, and joint pain, fatigue.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to record discrepancies in brain volume. It revealed a statistically significant correlation between lower brain volume and poor performance on the learning test.
Simon Wessley, director of the Centre for Military Health Research at King's College London has looked at the results with caution. He says "The time to try to find out exactly what went wrong with Gulf veterans was probably a decade ago. By now so many other things have happened; they are older, many drink, they may be depressed, and all these things can change the size of regions of the brain."
Recent, similar studies have shown decreases in brain volumes in individuals in the general population with chronic pain conditions such as low back pain and fibromyalgia.
Ms White has agreed that these are just preliminary findings and much has to done on the subject.