Brain Abnormalities in Gulf War Veterans

June 9, 2000

Gulf War Syndrome

For some of the 697,000 American men and women who served in the Persian Gulf region during Operation Desert Storm, the battles were not over when the fighting stopped. When many soldiers returned to the United States in 1991, they fought for their health against an illness termed "Gulf War Syndrome." Symptoms of this disorder include:

  • Chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches
  • Skin rashes
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Respiratory problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Depression
Three different types of Gulf War Syndrome have been identified:
Syndrome 1 (Impaired Cognition)
Symptoms: Depression, concentration difficulties

Commonly found in veterans who wore pesticide-containing flea collars.

Syndrome 2 (Confusion-Ataxia)
Symptoms: Thinking and reasoning difficulties, dizziness, balance and coordination problems

Commonly found in veterans who said they were exposed to nerve agents.

Syndrome 3 (Central Pain)
Symptoms: Joint and muscle pain, fatigue, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs

Commonly found in veterans exposed to insect repellents with the chemical DEET.

Although the causes of Gulf War Syndrome are not known for certain, some researchers believe that veterans who developed these symptoms may have been exposed to chemical nerve agents, pesticides or insect repellants. New research using brain scans show that regardless of the presumed cause of the disorder, veterans who have Gulf War Syndrome suffer from nerve cell loss in several areas of the brain.

Into the Scanner

Using a brain scanning technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (Dallas) examined and compared the brains of symptomatic and asymptomatic Gulf War veterans. The brains of 22 veterans with Gulf War Syndrome were compared with those from 18 healthy veterans. All of veterans were in the same military unit during the war. Researchers who examined the brain images did not know if the images were from a healthy subject or an ill subject.

In contrast to regular magnetic resonance imaging methods that provide an anatomical view of the brain, MRS methods give researchers a functional view of the brain. MRS works by measuring the concentration of a chemical called N-acetylaspartate (NAA) that is found only in neurons. Reduced amounts of NAA in a particular brain area would indicate impaired neuronal functioning, possibly due to neuronal damage or loss.

The Basal Ganglia and Pons Suffer

Compared to the brains of healthy veterans, the brains of veterans with Gulf War syndrome 2 showed abnormalities in three areas:

  1. 18% lower NAA value in the right basal ganglia (mainly the putamen, but also including the globus pallidus and caudate nucleus)
  2. 9% lower NAA value in the left basal ganglia
  3. 26% lower NAA value in the pons (an area of the brain stem)
Compared to the brains of healthy veterans, the brains of veterans with Gulf War syndrome 1 showed a slight decrease (3%) in the NAA value of the basal ganglia on both sides. Veterans with syndrome 3 showed a decrease (24%) in NAA value only in the pons.

Reduced NAA values may represent a loss of neurons or damage to neurons so they do not function properly. The data indicate that veterans with the most severe symptoms (syndrome 2) have the most extensive brain damage. Knowledge about the underlying brain changes in veterans with Gulf War Syndrome may help in the diagnosis and treatment of these patients.

Brain Areas Studied

For more information about Gulf War Syndrome, please see:
  1. Chemical catastrophes - from the Why Files
  2. Last Battle of the Gulf War - from PBS
  3. Clinical Evaluation Program for Gulf War Veterans

References and further information:

  1. Haley, R.W., Marshall, W.W., McDonald, G.G., Daugherty, M.A., Petty, F. and Fleckenstein, J.L., Brain Abnormalities in Gulf War Syndrome: Evaluation with 1H MR Spectroscopy, Neuroradiology, 215 (June):807-817, 2000.
  2. Haley, R.W., Kurt, T.M., Hom, J., Is there a Gulf War Syndrome? Searching for syndromes by factor analysis of symptoms, JAMA, 277:215-222, 1997.
  3. Nerve Agents - from Neuroscience for Kids


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