BOSTON—New research holds out promising for identifying and developing new therapies for veterans with Gulf War Illness.

A report in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity discussed the discovery of widespread inflammation in the brains of patients diagnosed with GWI.1

Massachusetts General Hospital-led researchers pointed out that about 30% of military personnel who fought in the 1991 Gulf War suffer from the mysterious illness and a range of symptoms, including fatigue, chronic pain and cognitive problems such as memory loss.

While the cause of GWI is unknown, past research has posited that causes could be exposure to nerve gas; medication used to protect against the neurotoxin and exposure to pesticides, as well as the stress of extreme temperature changes, sleep deprivation and physical exertion during deployment.

Senior author Marco Loggia, PhD, and colleagues demonstrated in a study last year fibromyalgia patients have extensive neuroinflammation. “So, we asked, ‘Do veterans who have Gulf War Illness demonstrate evidence of neuroinflammation, too?’” Loggia recounted.

Collaborating with the Gulf War Illness Consortium at Boston University, researchers were able to recruit 23 Gulf War veterans for the study—15 had GWI and were compared to 25 healthy civilian, including eight Gulf War veterans without symptoms.

“Whether compared to the whole HC group, or only the HCVET subgroup, veterans with GWI demonstrated widespread cortical elevations in [11C]PBR28 PET signal, in areas including precuneus, prefrontal, primary motor and somatosensory cortices,” the authors reported. “There were no significant group differences in the plasma levels of the inflammatory cytokines evaluated. There were also no significant correlations between [11C]PBR28 PET signal and clinical variables or circulating inflammatory cytokines.”

Researchers pointed out that their study offers “the first direct evidence of brain upregulation of the neuroinflammatory marker TSPO in veterans with GWI and supports the exploration of neuroinflammation as a therapeutic target for this disorder.” TSPO, 18 kDa translocator protein, is a protein upregulated in activated microglia/macrophages and astrocytes, according to the study.

Extensive inflammation in the brains of veterans with GWI was found “particularly in the cortical regions, which are involved in ‘higher-order’ functions, such as memory, concentration and reasoning,” said Zeynab Alshelh, PhD, one of two research fellows in Loggia’s lab who co-led the study. “The neuroinflammation looked very similar to the widespread cortical inflammation we detected in fibromyalgia patients.”

  1. Zeynab Alshelh, Daniel S. Albrecht, Courtney Bergan, Oluwaseun Akeju, Daniel J. Clauw, Lisa Conboy, Robert R. Edwards, Minhae Kim, Yvonne C. Lee, Ekaterina Protsenko, Vitaly Napadow, Kimberly Sullivan, Marco L. Loggia. In-vivo imaging of neuroinflammation in veterans with Gulf War illness. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2020; DOI: 1016/j.bbi.2020.01.020