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Brain Inflammation Found in Veterans With Gulf War Illness

In a new study, researchers detected widespread inflammation in the brains of veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Illness (GWI).

GWI is a chronic, multi-symptom condition affecting about 30% of military veterans who returned from the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Symptoms may include fatigue, muscle pain, insomnia, cognitive problems (often described as brain fog) and exhaustion after exercise.

The cause of GWI is unknown, but several potential culprits are suspected. They include exposure to nerve gas, as well as medicine given to protect against this neurotoxin; exposure to pesticides; and the stress of extreme temperature changes, sleep deprivation and physical exertion during deployment.

Many GWI symptoms overlap with fibromyalgia, said the senior author of the study, Marco Loggia, Ph.D. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition also characterized by widespread pain with associated fatigue, sleep and mood issues.

Loggia’s laboratory at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital focuses on understanding the brain mechanisms of pain and neuroinflammation in humans.

Last year, Loggia and his colleagues showed in another study that fibromyalgia patients have extensive neuroinflammation. “So, we asked, Do veterans who have Gulf War Illness demonstrate evidence of neuroinflammation, too?”

To find out, the research team collaborated with the Gulf War Illness Consortium at Boston University, which helped them recruit Gulf War veterans. The study involved 23 veterans, 15 of whom had GWI, as well as 25 healthy civilian subjects.

All participants’ brains were scanned using positron-emission tomography (PET) imaging, which measured levels of a molecule called translocator protein that rises in the presence of neuroinflammation.

The scans detected little evidence of neuroinflammation in the healthy controls and veterans without GWI. In contrast, the researchers found extensive inflammation in the brains of veterans with GWI, “particularly in the cortical regions, which are involved in ‘higher-order’ functions, such as memory, concentration and reasoning,” said Zeynab Alshelh, Ph.D., 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,” said Alshelh.

What might cause neuroinflammation? The central nervous system has legions of immune cells that protect the brain by detecting bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful agents, then producing inflammatory molecules to destroy the invaders, said Loggia.

However, while this response can be beneficial in the short term, it may become exaggerated, said Loggia, “and when that happens, inflammation becomes pathological — it becomes the problem.”

Research has also implicated neuroinflammation in a number of additional conditions, including chronic pain, depression, anxiety, autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), Huntington’s disease and migraine. The findings of the GWI study, Loggia said, “could help motivate a more aggressive evaluation of neuroinflammation as a potential therapeutic target.”

The findings are published online in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital

Brain Inflammation Found in Veterans With Gulf War Illness

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Brain Inflammation Found in Veterans With Gulf War Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Feb 2020 (Originally: 15 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Feb 2020
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