Studies Find Damage to Brains of Veterans with Gulf War Illness

Patient Expert

Gulf War Illness is believed to have affected more than 200,000 military personnel who served in the 1990-1991 Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and were exposed to nerve agents, pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals.

The symptoms - which closely resemble fibromyalgia and ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) symptoms - range from mild to debilitating, and can include widespread pain, chronic headache, cognitive difficulties, unexplained fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.

Sadly until recently, the medical community and many in the general public have viewed Gulf War Illness with the same skepticism that FM and ME/CFS have endured for decades. But finally two studies out of Georgetown University have uncovered damage to different areas of the brain in veterans who are suffering with Gulf War Illness.

In the first study, published in PLOS ONE in March, the brain scans of 31 veterans with the illness, compared to 20 control subjects, revealed anomalies in the bundles of axons, also known as nerve fibers, that connect brain areas involved in the processing and perception of pain and fatigue.

Although preliminary, "the changes appear distinct from multiple sclerosis, major depression, Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases," says the study's lead author, GUMC researcher Rakib Rayhan. "These novel findings are really exciting because they provide validation for many veterans who have long said that no one believes them."

The second study, published in PLOS ONE in June, using functional MRI, found one group of veterans had atrophy in the brainstem, which regulates heart rate, while another showed atrophy in cortical regions adjacent to pain perception. Both groups showed compensatory use of different parts of the brain prior to stress tests, followed by the inability to use those areas after exercise. Such compensatory behavior is a trait often observed in neurodegenerative disorders. The alterations in cognition, brain structure and exercise-induced symptoms found in the veterans were not found in a control group..

"This has been a 20-year detective story, and for the sake of our veterans, I hope we have made an impact for them," says the study's senior investigator, Dr. James Baraniuk. "Now investigators can move from subjective criteria to objective MRI and other criteria for diagnosis and to understand the brain pathology."

Veterans Finally Feel Validated

Gulf War veteran and study participant Carolyn Kroot, 54, a retired warrant officer in the Army National Guard, spent six months in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. She believes she was exposed to sarin gas in Saudi Arabia.

"Our chemical alarms were going off constantly," she says.

Within months of her return Kroot realized she was unable to focus on her work.

"I had a hard time comprehending and remembering things, and I was always fatigued," she says. "It has been liberating for me to have the validation, the confirmation, that there is indeed something physically wrong with me."

My Thoughts...

I am so happy that researchers have finally been able to pinpoint at least part of the reason many of our veterans have been suffering for the past two decades. Those of us with FM and ME/CFS know only too well how it feels to be sick yet have our doctors, families and friends question whether anything physical is really wrong with us. Our veterans deserve better. I hope, with this validation, they will finally be able to get the kind of care they need.


Rayhan RU, et al. "Increased Brain White Matter Axial Diffusivity Associated with Fatigue, Pain and Hyperalgesia in Gulf War Illness." PLOS ONE. March 20, 2013.

First Physical Evidence of Gulf War Illness Discovered in Veterans' Brains. Georgetown University News Release. March 20, 2013.

Rayhan RU, et al. "Exercise Challenge in Gulf War Illness Reveals Two Subgroups with Altered Brain Structure and Function." PLOS ONE. June 14, 2013.

Georgetown Researchers Discover Two Forms of Gulf War Illness. Georgetown University News Release. June 14, 2013.