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Scan finds brain damage in sick Gulf war vets United Press International - May 25, 2000 14:23

By MICHAEL SMITH, UPI Science news DALLAS, Texas, May 25 (UPI) -- Gulf War veterans who returned sick from the conflict show signs of significant damage in three regions of the brain, a new study shows.

Epidemiologist Robert Haley of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center said brain scans of veterans show loss of cells or cellular function in the left and right basal ganglia and the brain stem. The basal ganglia are walnut-sized structures on either side of the brainstem, the connection between the brain and the spinal cord. All three structures are involved in memory, emotions and usually-automatic processes such as balance and muscle control. Haley said the damage, which is similar to that seen in the early stages of Huntingdon's and Parkinson's disease, may have been caused by low-level exposure to the nerve gas sarin. The research is published in the June issue of the journal Radiology.

A defense department spokesman called the study "very important." But physician Michael Kilpatrick of the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses said Haley's "test itself does not say what has caused the brain damage."

Haley used a sensitive test, called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS),to test 40 members of a Naval Reserve construction battalion, commonly known as the Seabees. Twenty-two of the Seabees were ill with Gulf War Syndrome, and 18 were healthy, although the investigators doing the tests didn't know which was which. The MRS test gives a readout of the chemical composition of the area under study, Haley said.

Haley and his colleagues were looking for a chemical known as N-acetyl-aspartate, or NAA, which is produced only by healthy brain cells. "What we found is that it was 25 percent lower in the sick guys in these three brain regions than in the well guys," he said. "These guys actually have abnormal brain cells in the basal ganglia and brain stem." Haley said the finding may mean 25 percent of the cells are dead or many of them are functioning at lower than normal levels. Researchers break Gulf War Syndrome into three variants, he said. Of the three, Gulf War Syndrome II is most serious, causing memory failures,confusion, balance disturbance and severe fatigue. Syndrome I causes reasoning impairment, sleep disorders and depression, Haley said, while Syndrome III causes pain in the joints and muscles, even though the joints and muscles are normal. Brain damage varied among those with the three syndromes, Haley said, with only the Syndrome II patients having severe damage to all three areas.

Earlier work, he said, had shown that the sick Seabees had lower than normal levels of an enzyme, called paraoxanase, which protects against the nerve gas sarin. "This suggested that sarin was the actual cause of the disease," Haley said.

The difficulty with that theory, Kilpatrick said, is that there's no evidence the Seabees were ever exposed to sarin. The only documented sarin exposure was in Iraq, at a place called Khamisiyah, he said, while the Seabees were stationed at Aljubayl, on the east coast of Saudi Arabia.

"I think it's very important to keep minds open about the cause, because (Haley's) test does not show the cause," Kilpatrick said. Kilpatrick said the study needs to be repeated, with larger numbers. "What (Haley) has really done has opened the door for further research," he said. -- Copyright 2000 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

-- mike in houston (, May 25, 2000

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