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Evidence of brain damage link to Gulf War illness may end up benefiting others

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 7:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Researchers say they have found physical proof that Gulf War illness is caused by damage to the brain — and that proof may help civilians who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Using fMRI machines, the Georgetown University researchers were able to see anomalies in the bundle of nerve fibers that interpret pain signals in the brain in 31 Gulf War veterans. The research published on Wednesday in PLOS ONE journal. An fMRI, or “functional” MRI, is a scan that measures activity by detecting how blood flows through the brain.

The findings are “huge,” because an fMRI allows doctors to diagnose a person with Gulf War illness quickly, said James Baraniuk, senior author and professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center. The research, he said, also shows that Gulf War illness is not psychological.

Many veterans have had difficulties getting benefits and treatment for a service-connected condition because doctors assumed they were either faking it or suffering from post-traumatic stress. “That's a problem with all physicians — VA, military or civilian,” Baraniuk said. “If it doesn't fall within their small world of known diseases, then the patient is nuts.”

Gulf War illness is a series of symptoms that has affected more than 250,000 veterans of the 1991 war against Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Baraniuk said the correlation of anomalies in the brain's white matter with Gulf War illness has not been studied before. Researchers, he said, also found that fatigue and pain worsen congruently in the veterans.

“This is a big deal,” Army veteran Robert Ward said. “This has ruined my life.”

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