Gulf War Syndrome affects as many as 200,000 veterans who served the Persian Gulf War, and the answers to the cause may be found inside the cells. Recently, a group of researchers from the University of California San Diego may have unraveled one of the mysteries about the Gulf War Syndrome that had baffled medical professionals for over 20 years. Their study, led by Dr. Beatrice A. Golomb M.D., Ph.D., with Gavin Hamilton, Ph.D. and associate researcher Hayley Koslik, was published on March 27, 2014 in PLOS One.
Muscle fatigue and low cognition are some of the many symptoms of the Gulf War Syndrome, which led Golomb to suspect that the mitochondria — the cell’s energy powerhouses — may contribute to the problems. Mitochondria, which are shaped like hacky-sacks or pill capsules, are responsible for producing energy from metabolizing fats and carbohydrates with oxygen. To determine if mitochondria dysfunction was the primary cause of the Gulf War Syndrome, Golomb and her team had seven Gulf War veterans and seven matching healthy controls exercise. Then they measured a substance called phosphocreatine (PCr), which is the emergency energy reserves. In the study, six of the seven veterans had significantly delayed recovery time compared to the healthy controls. Golomb believed the problem lies in the mitochondria.
Skeptics may point out that it may not always be the cause of the Gulf War Syndrome since mitochondria dysfunction and other health problems could be caused by various things. However, Golomb stated that these incidences of mitochondrial dysfunction is “triggered by some of the classes of chemicals” that exhibited the strongest link to the disease. Before the UCSD study was published, experts in the Gulf War Syndrome suspected that toxins, such as the anthrax vaccine, nerve gases, and pesticides, were the blame. Golomb suspected that the cause may have been caused by a drug that contained pyridostigmine bromide (PB pill). It was given by the U.S. military to the soldiers to counter possible exposure to certain nerve agents.
Some said that this study was too small to draw any significant conclusions, however, it may be a base for future studies to follow and replicate with bigger sample populations. “Yes, we do acknowledge this as a limitation of the study, though it is not a means to discount our findings,” Koslik stated in an email interview. “The separation between Gulf War veterans and matched controls’ PCr values is noticeably significant, visually and statistically. Note that close matching of our veterans to controls on key parameters (age, sex, and ethnicity) advantages authority of the comparison.” The age differences among the subjects were about 38 months apart.
Past studies had shown that those who had served in the Persian Gulf War had higher incidences of Gulf War Syndrome than those who were deployed elsewhere in the world. Symptoms include headaches, memory problems, fatigue, diarrhea, joint and nerve problems, and indigestion. Because veterans tend to exhibit different symptoms and levels of severity, treatment is extremely difficult.
Gulf War veterans who are suffering from this syndrome may find some relief from the UCSD study, understanding that the answers may be found inside their cells rather than “it’s just in their head.” While the cure for Gulf War Syndrome may be years — or decades — away, new findings and better funding could bring one step closer to the answer.
By Nick Ng
Interview with Hayley Koslik