WASHINGTON — Gulf War illness appears to be more complex than previously thought, according to a study using brain imaging of veterans with the condition.

The report in Brain Communications discussed how varying abnormalities were detected after moderate exercise that can be categorized into two distinct groups.1

Georgetown University Medical Center researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging demonstrated how the Gulf War Illness patients have one of two different of kinds of changes after exercise when compared with healthy patients. The study team suggested their results help clarify that the illness leads to measurable physiological changes in the brain, suggesting multiple strategies for future treatments of the condition affecting about 25% to 30% of veterans from the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War.

Background information in the article pointed out that GWI’s cognitive and memory problems, pain and fatigue following mild to moderate exertion are similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.

Researchers in the laboratory of James Baraniuk, MD, professor of medicine at Georgetown, imaged the brains of veterans with Gulf War illness before and after moderate exercise. The following day, the groups had a second stress test and a memory test during brain imaging.

No differences were detected in fMRI scans between veterans before exercise. The veterans were then divided into those who had previously shown racing heartrates after standing up and those who did not.

Lead author Stuart Washington, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow, said both groups of Gulf War illness veterans were found to have differences in brain activity compared to healthy patients, but the type of abnormal brain activity was different between the groups.

Specifically, he said, the veterans prone to racing heartrates had a significant decrease in brain activity in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for fine motor control, cognition, pain and emotion. On the other hand, the veterans not prone to rapid heartbeat had a significant increase in brain activity in a different part of the brain that is responsible for planning of body movements and associated with chronic pain. At the same time, no change was detected in the healthy patients.

“While these findings present new challenges to treating people with Gulf War illness, they also present new opportunities,” Washington suggested.

“Gulf War illness remains a debilitating disease, but we are getting a better handle on the cognitive dysfunction,” Baraniuk added. “Now that different regions of the brain have been associated with two subtypes of GWI, we can study these regions through imaging and other techniques to improve diagnosis and, perhaps, to study future treatments.”

  1. Washington SD, Rayhan RU, Garner R, Provenzano D, et. Al. Exercise Alters Cerebellar and Cortical Activity Related to Working Memory in Phenotypes of Gulf War Illness. Brain Communications, 2019; DOI: 10.1093/braincomms/fcz039