New Research Addresses Unique Challenges to Brain Health Faced by Servicemembers

By Annette M. Boyle

The portable and durable BrainScope assesses electrical activity in the brain to detect internal bleeding prior to a CT scan and could be used in a number of military scenarios, according to military researchers. Photo from the manufacturer.

WASHINGTON—Neuroscientists are tackling some of the challenges to brain health predominantly experienced by servicemembers – and that has important implications for the broader population.

Two recent studies address the chronic multisymptom disease known as Gulf War Illness (GWI). Nearly 32% of veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War experience a variable combination of functional medical issues such as muscular fatigue, chronic pain, vision disturbances and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as neurological concerns including impaired memory, attention and mood. “These associations emphasize the interconnectedness of the brain and body,” noted the Institute of Medicine (now the Health and Medicine Division) in its most recent report on the condition.

Recent research indicates that sarin gas, which was used widely as a nerve agent during the conflict, contributes to development of GWI. While high doses of sarin are fatal, research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience demonstrated that low doses of sarin, combined with high levels of stress, suppress dopamine and destabilize microtubules that provide support and facilitate transport in neurons. Impaired dopamine release is associated with a number of neurodegenerative diseases.

The researchers also identified a way to reverse the effects of sarin. In tests with rats, the molecule tubacin restored the proper structure of the microtubules. Now, the researchers are confirming their findings with neurons derived from stem cells from Gulf War veterans.

This “will more closely mimic the disease state and provide a more detailed understanding of the effects of stress in Gulf War Illness and thereby help us to test medicines that may improve the health of veterans,” explained lead author Ankita Patil, MS, of Drexel University College of Medicine.

Other research presented at the conference documented extensive communication abnormalities in neurological networks of veterans with GWI. The team of researchers from Atlanta and Houston used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare communication patterns in various brain regions in 22 veterans with GWI to those of 30 age-matched veterans without the disease.

They found that the brains of affected veterans exhibited neural communication deficits that affected visual processing, mood regulation, motor coordination, sensory processing and language. The patients also had heightened communication in sectors that corresponded to pain perception during rest. “The results from this study provide strong evidence of neuropathology in GWI patients from exposures to neurotoxic agents,” pointed out lead author Kaundinya Gopinath, PhD, of Emory University. The next step, she said, was to “establish brain mechanisms underlying GWI, which in turn can lead to development of treatments.”

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