When she returned from the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Air Force nurse Denise Nichols experienced sudden aches, fatigue and cognitive problems, and had no idea what was causing them. They grew worse: Even helping her daughter with multiplication tables became difficult, she says, and eventually she quit her job.
Nichols wasn't alone. About a third of Gulf War veterans, possibly as many as 250,000 Americans, returned with similar symptoms.
Now an imaging study has found that these veterans have what appear to be unique structural changes in the wiring of their brains. This fits with the scientific consensus that Gulf War Syndrome, or GWS, is a physical condition rather than a psychosomatic one and should be treated with painkilling drugs, not counseling.
In the past, military authorities in various countries consistently denied that there was a physical basis to GWS. The Department of Veterans Affairs now accepts that the disorder is physical, but the issue has been mired in controversy.
Steven Coughlin, a former senior epidemiologist at Veterans Affairs, testified this month before a congressional panel that the VA had suppressed and manipulated research data so as to suggest that the disorder was psychosomatic.
In response, the VA said "all allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully."
Whatever the cause of GWS, it is certainly not psychological, says Bernard Rosof of Huntington Hospital on Long Island, but no single cause is known. Suggested causes include exposure to low levels of sarin gas when chemical munitions were destroyed, and a drug called pyridostigmine bromide, which soldiers were given to protect them from sarin.
It's vital to find an objective test that will allow physicians to make a diagnosis, said James Baraniuk, of MedStar Georgetown University Medical Center, a co-author of the new imaging study.