Gulf War Illness and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Show Distinct Brain Differences, Contrary to Previous Theories

by Lauren Taylor from In The Cloud Copy

Gulf war illness (GWI) is a chronic condition that is considered multi-symptomatic, meaning there are a wide range of chronic and acute symptoms associated with the condition. Some of the symptoms reported include fatigue, cognitive problems, diarrhea, muscle pain, rashes, and insomnia. An estimated 35% of the veterans who served during the Gulf War are affected by the condition. The cause of this condition appears to be linked to pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide containing pills (pyridostigmine bromide is used as a pretreatment to protect against nerve agent effects). There are other causes that are continually investigated, such as cyclosarin, sarin, and oil well fire emissions, but their relationships to the disease are not well defined.

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, is a disorder that is quite complicated and is characterized by fatigue that is extreme in nature and lasts longer than six months without any other explainable underlying condition. The fatigue experience worsens with both mental and physical activity and does not improve when the patient rests. The exact cause of this condition is not known but is believed to be triggered by immune system problems, viral infections, hormonal imbalances, and/or physical or emotional traumas. There is no standard treatment, but rather clinicians focus on symptom management.

GWI and CFS Two Distinct Disorders, Recent Studies Show

While these two conditions share many symptoms and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (also known as the VA) even lists a symptom of GWI as CFS, there is now evidence that these two conditions are actually completely distinct and different.

A study completed recently at Georgetown University Medical Center indicates that GWI and CFS actually have distinctly differing abnormal brain activity patterns when moderate exercise has been performed. This information proves that while CFS is often listed as a symptom of GWI, it is not actually a symptom but a separate condition.

The study conducted looked at function magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, of the brain of patients who suffered from both CFS and GWI. The fMRI was conducted after the patients were asked to perform moderate exercise and then complete a memory task. fMRI imaging was also conducted when completing the memory task but not performing any exercise prior. The images were then compared.

Imaging in veterans suffering from GWI showed that the periaqueductal gray area of the brain, which is within the brainstem and a region responsible for pain processing, showed decreased brain activity. Decreased brain activity was also seen in the cerebellum, which is the area of the brain that manages things such as emotion, pain, fine motor control, and cognition.

The patients suffering from CFS had imaging performed as well, which actually showed activity increased in the cerebral cortex and the periaqueductal gray areas of the brain. The cerebral cortex is responsible for maintaining things like attention and vigilance. In volunteers that are considered healthy, the brain did not show any changes when these same tests were administered.

Previous studies on CFS and GWI also show changes in the makeup of the cerebrospinal fluid on a molecular level after exercise. These results further show that these two conditions are not the same and that CFS cannot be a symptom of GWI.

These results will ultimately help clinicians with diagnosis and will further guide future treatments for each of the two conditions.

Check out the original study here.

Read more about this story here.

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