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UT research: Gulf War vets may face brain disease

Houston Chronicle Science Writer Staff

Texas researchers have linked brain-cell loss among ailing Persian Gulf War veterans with abnormal overproduction of a brain chemical that could lead to long-term degenerative diseases.

Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas found that because of some veterans' out-of-control production of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, there could be an epidemic of Parkinson's disease.

"This gives increased importance to our earlier brain-scan evidence of brain damage in veterans," said Dr. Robert Haley, a professor of internal medicine who has led UT Southwestern's Gulf War -related research. "Showing that the degree of brain-cell injury directly affects the level of brain dopamine production suggests the brain damage may be having a real effect on these veterans' brain function and is not just coincidental."

About 100,000 troops who fought in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991 have complained of an array of symptoms that have become known as Gulf War syndrome . The symptoms include chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, memory loss, sleep disorders, chronic diarrhea, balance disturbances, depression and concentration problems.

But there has been skepticism about the syndrome , which some think is merely post-traumatic stress disorder. A panel of scientists two weeks ago reported that it couldn't say what brought on the symptoms, saying there isn't enough reliable data to determine whether exposure to poison gas, uranium, drugs and vaccines was the cause.

UT Southwestern researchers think chemical exposure is the cause. Since 1997, they have amassed a growing body of evidence suggesting that exposure to low levels of nerve gas and pesticides, in combination with an anti-nerve gas drug Gulf War veterans took, likely caused brain damage in some.

In the latest finding, published in the American Medical Association's September issue of Archives of Neurology, brain scans revealed damage to the left side and high production of dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays an important role in motor movement control.

The researchers hypothesize that when brain cells that normally control dopamine production are injured, the cells go wild and become overstimulated, but over time wear out and die.

Haley predicts between 20,000 and 80,000 Gulf War veterans now in their 20s and 30s may develop Parkinson's or other neurological diseases in their 40s, 50s and 60s. There are more than 500,000 Americans with Parkinson's, a chronic disease characterized by a rhythmic tremor and muscular rigidity.

UT Southwestern researchers examined 27 members of a Naval reserve unit, 20 of whom served in the Gulf War and 12 of whom came down with the syndrome after returning to the United States.

The researchers found veterans with the syndrome had 9 percent fewer cells in the left side than healthy veterans and about twice as high dopamine production.

UT Southwestern researchers are seeking a $25 million grant from the Department of Defense to expand the scope of their research.

Previous UT Southwestern research found that Gulf War veterans suffering from the disorder performed dramatically worse than healthy veterans in a battery of brain tests, that some veterans may be sick because they were exposed to certain chemicals and took doses of pyridostigmine bromide, a drug that was supposed to help them survive a nerve-gas attack, and that veterans born with low levels of an enzyme that destroys toxins were more likely to suffer brain damage from such exposures, which would explain why some who served in the gulf became ill and others didn't.

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