New research has identified the likely root cause of the vexing Gulf War Syndrome: Toxic chemical exposures in the field of battle.
The report, released Monday by a congressionally mandated panel of scientific experts and veterans, offers one of the most comprehensive analyses ever conducted of the physiological mechanisms that underlie Gulf War illnesses that have struck up to 250,000 of vets of the 1990-91 conflict.
Research has increased significantly since 2008, and "early results provide encouraging signs that the treatment goals identified in the 2010 Institute of Medicine report are achievable," the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses said in a report to VA Secretary Eric Shinse.
The RAC report updates scientific research published since the committee's landmark report in 2008, which established that Gulf War illness was a real condition.
"The conclusions of the 2008 RAC report had a substantial impact on scientific and clinical thinking about Gulf War illness, as well as the public acceptance of this disorder," said Roberta White, the committee's scientific director and chair of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The earlier report documented a number of studies linking the illness to exposure to pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide (found in anti-nerve gas pills given to troops), as well as other toxic sources.
"Studies published since 2008 continue to support the conclusion that Gulf War illness is causally related to chemical exposures in the combat theater," White said. "And many studies of the brain and central nervous system, using imaging, EEG and other objective measures of brain structure and function, add to the existing evidence that central nervous system dysfunction is a critical element in the disorder. Evidence also continues to point to immunological effects of Gulf War illness."
The new report notes that studies show that Gulf War illness is not associated with psychological stressors during the war. In fact, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric illnesses in Gulf War veterans are far below the rate of these disorders in vets of other recent wars, and far below the rate of Gulf War illness.
In addition, the committee said, new evidence suggests certain exposures may be linked to brain cancer in Gulf War veterans. Studies show that veterans who were exposed to the release of nerve gas during the destruction of the Khamisiyah arms depot in Iraq have greater rates of death due to brain cancer.
Veterans who were exposed to the highest level of contaminants from oil well fires also have increased rates of brain cancer deaths, the report says.
The panel cited a number of "promising" treatment studies, including those testing certain dietary supplements, intranasal insulin, and continuous positive airway pressure to ease fatigue and pain and improve cognitive function.
Gulf War illness refers to the chronic symptoms that affect veterans of the 1990-91 conflict including pain, headache, persistent problems with memory and thinking, fatigue, breathing problems, stomach and intestinal symptoms, and skin abnormalities.
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