One Mystery Remains
More than 20 years after the Gulf War, the possibility that something happened to the brains of these veterans is now taken seriously. “These new studies, together with previous studies, show that no matter how you choose subjects or how you define Gulf War illness, you still see structural changes in the brain,” says Roberta White, a neuropsychologist from Boston University’s School of Public Health. “There is very compelling evidence that brain damage has occurred.”
Larger studies are still needed to confirm these observations. But already, the official status of Gulf War illness has shifted. The Institute of Medicine partly reversed its earlier findings and now recognizes a connection between some symptoms and deployment to the Gulf. The Veterans Administration doesn’t formally recognize Gulf War illness, but it now treats many of its symptoms under terms like “chronic multisymptom illness.”
But the final piece of the puzzle is still missing: How did these soldiers get sick? Many troops were exposed to a class of chemicals called organophosphates, which include everything from pesticides to sarin gas, a chemical weapon. A research committee appointed by Congress and chaired by White concluded in 2008 that these compounds, many of which are nervous system toxins, were to blame. Baraniuk suspects them, too.
White’s own studies show that veterans who were most exposed to these substances showed reductions in white matter, and another 2010 study found smaller hippocampal volumes in the vets, much like the changes seen in victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo.
To Baraniuk, the change in attitudes in the past eight years has been gratifying because it helps in the quest for diagnosis and treatment for hundreds of thousands of ailing veterans. His patients aren’t alarmed by the findings that their brains have been affected, he says — they’re hopeful.
To manage her memory problems and health, Kroot, now 55, follows a regime of medications and mild exercise, together with memory-boosting strategies like writing herself reminder notes. She continues to hope for a better solution. “There is something here, a reason why these things are wrong with my body,” she says. “I have some hope that there may be a way to treat it someday.”
[This article originally appeared in print as "An Invisible Enemy."]