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Gulf War Ills

Funding is boosted for research that will focus on neurotoxins

November 22, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 47

Research investigating Gulf War syndrome from Operation Desert Storm gets a shot in the arm.
Research investigating Gulf War syndrome from Operation Desert Storm gets a shot in the arm.


The findings of a federal advisory panel on Gulf War veterans' illnesses have convinced Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Anthony J. Principi to allot $15 million in fiscal 2005 for additional research and to set up a research center to monitor and treat veterans of the 1991 war.

At a press conference announcing the grants, Principi said the funding was the single largest allocation of VA funds for research in a specific area of investigation--about 20% of all new grant awards for 2005. He further said research would focus on neurotoxins and none of the funding would support research on combat stress as a causative factor. About 30% of the nearly 700,000 troops who fought in the first Gulf War suffer chronic headaches, memory problems, tremors and dizziness, and blurred vision.

The 11-member Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, which Principi set up in 2002, found that recent studies finger exposure to neurotoxins--not wartime stress or psychiatric disorders--as the probable cause for the reported neurological symptoms. Some troops were exposed to the nerve agent sarin and pyridostigmine bromine, a nerve agent antidote, and nearly all troops were exposed to pesticides and insecticides.

By implicating neurotoxins as a likely cause, the advisory committee departs sharply from conclusions reached by previous presidential panels set up in 1996 and 1997. Those panels indicted combat stress as the probable cause for what has been called Gulf War syndrome.

As Lea Steele, scientific director of the research advisory committee, points out, numerous epidemiological studies and psychiatric evaluations of the veterans "all indicate a low rate of psychiatric illness--lower than in previous wars." On the other hand, a large number of recent animal studies show that "low-level exposure to neurotoxins can cause persistent adverse effects." Specialized brain scans and tests of the autonomic nervous system and neurocognitive function pinpoint neurological abnormalities in ill Gulf War veterans.

In short, Steele says, "multiple lines of evidence are converging on the central point that there is neurological impairment of Gulf War veterans." Evidence also shows that "some low-level exposures to neurotoxins alone or in combination can cause these long-term adverse effects," she adds.

"As a veterans' advocate, Gulf War vet, and a member of the committee, I'm pleased with the content of the report and the direction of the research the report has recommended the VA pursue," says Steve Smithson, assistant director for veterans affairs at the American Legion.

Equally pleased is another committee member, Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. Though $15 million is not a great deal of money, "if VA narrows its research focus to the things science supports" as likely causative factors, "the money will be spent wisely and bear fruit," he says.

The panel's work continues, Steele says. "Additional exposures of possible concern--vaccines, depleted uranium, smoke from oil-well fires, and infectious agents--have yet to be addressed by the committee," she adds.



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