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Brain Scans Dig Further Into The Mystery Of Gulf War Syndrome


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

US Air Force fighters patrol no-fly zone over Iraq during First Gulf War in 1991. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Gulf War syndrome continues to be a medical mystery. Almost one-third of the 700,000 US and Allied soldiers who participated in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq experience an unusual array of symptoms, including fatigue, muscle pain, "brain fog", headaches, cognitive problems, insomnia, and digestive problems. While the underlying cause of the illness is still hazy, a new study has helped to further bust the old belief that Gulf War illness (GWI) is the same as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). 

The two illnesses share some symptoms: problems with cognitive function, “brain fog”, issues with memory, pain, and fatigue following exercise. However, recent brain scans revealed that people with the two conditions show vastly different neural activity when carrying out memory tests after exercise.


A previous study published in 2017 by this same research group also suggested the two illnesses are separate conditions. For this new study, scientists at Georgetown University Medical Center have dug deep into how the conditions differ. They discovered that veterans with GWI showed decreased brain activity in the periaqueductal gray (a pain processing region) and in a part of the brain responsible for fine motor control, cognition, pain, and emotion, while people with CFS had increased activity in the periaqueductal gray and parts of the brain responsible for vigilance and attention. 

Their new findings were recently reported in the journal Brain Communications

Aerial view of destroyed Iraqi vehicles besides the Highway 80 west of Kuwait City, known as the "Highway of Death" in February 1991. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

The Persian Gulf War kicked off in August 1990 after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring oil-rich nation of Kuwait in order to pay off the vast debts amounted during the Iran-Iraq War. The move was met with international condemnation, eventually leading to the US, the UK, and other nations launching a military conflict against Iraq. One of the defining images of the war has become the Kuwaiti oil fires, in which the Iraqi army set fire to hundreds of oil wells as part of a scorched earth policy while retreating from Kuwait in 1991. 

This stunning event and the exposure to chemicals are also often considered as a prime suspect in the development of Gulf War syndrome. In 2003, the European Molecular Biology Organization noted the condition has been “linked to exposure to depleted uranium, pesticides, vaccines, particulate matter and gases from burning oil wells, biological and chemical weapons, and the anti-nerve-gas drug pyridostigmine bromide (PB)."


However, researchers are still struggling to reach an agreement about the underlying cause of the condition. Some have indicated that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could be linked to some aspects of the illness, although veterans of the Gulf War show extremely different symptoms to those who served in other wars both before and after.

Unfortunately, this confusion and lack of solid scientific knowledge mean that people with Gulf War syndrome are often misdiagnosed and their illness remains widely misunderstood. 

“Now that CFS and GWI have been shown to affect different regions of the brain, these regions can be more closely examined using neuroimaging and other techniques to further our understanding of the similarities and differences between the two illnesses,” Dr James Baraniuk, study author and professor of medicine at Georgetown, said in a statement. “Once this new information is adopted broadly, diagnoses and treatments for both disorders should improve."


healthHealth and Medicine
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  • brain,

  • cognition,

  • memory,

  • PTSD,

  • war,

  • Iraq,

  • Gulf War illness,

  • Gulf War,

  • Gulf War syndrome