CHICAGO -- Brain scans of soldiers who say they suffer from Gulf War illness suggest they have brain damage, possibly from chemicals they were exposed to during the conflict, researchers reported Tuesday.
The researchers said veterans who report symptoms of the illness had lower levels of a certain brain chemical than healthy veterans of the 1991 conflict.
"This is the first time ever we have proof of brain damage in sick Gulf War veterans," said the lead researcher, Dr. James L. Fleckenstein, professor of radiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"They can be believed -- they're not malingering, they're not depressed, they're not stressed. There's a hope for treatment and there's hope for being able to monitor the progress of the disease."
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said he looked forward to examining the research. "I hope he's right" that chemical exposure is the answer, he said. "We need to take a look at it."
West Augusta resident Angeline Prophete said that if the Department of Defense accepted the findings of the University of Texas study it would be a step in giving credibility to veterans who for years have claimed a link between their ailments and their service in the Persian Gulf War.
"I have a psychiatric label ... like I am making up all of these stories (about her illnesses)," she said. "(If DOD accepted the findings) they would start to understand that this is something complex."
Ms. Prophete, 50, was an Army captain placed on temporary retirement in 1996 and subsequently on medical retirement in August 1999 while receiving treatment for illnesses she said began during her service in the Persian Gulf. Ms. Prophete, who worked as a registered nurse for more than 25 years, is a member of the Augusta Gulf War Veterans, a 24-member local veterans advocacy group.
"I started being sick from the time I was in the desert, having the numbness in my hand, then throwing up, pelvic pain, bleeding. I ended up in the hospital in Saudi. I had surgery."
The Texas researchers reported that magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which measures body chemistry, revealed that veterans who believe they have the illness have lower-than-normal levels of a chemical, N-acetyl-aspartate, in the brain stem and basal ganglia.
That suggests a loss of neurons in those areas, said the researchers, who presented the findings at the 85th annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
The brain stem controls some of the body's reflexes, and the basal ganglia are switching stations for nerve impulses controlling movement, memory and emotion. The basal ganglia, for example, are where the malfunctioning occurs that causes Parkinson's disease.
In the study, brain scans of 22 sick veterans revealed levels of N-acetyl-aspartate 10 percent to 25 percent lower than those in 18 healthy veterans, Dr. Fleckenstein said. The finding held up in an additional six sick Gulf War veterans drawn from a different part of the military, he said.
Researchers say they believe that soldiers who became ill were those who had a genetic vulnerability to certain chemicals that they were exposed to during the war, including nerve gas, the insecticide DEET, pet flea collars some wore to repel pests and the drug pyridostigmine bromide. PB was administered to as many as 250,000 soldiers in the belief it would protect them from the toxic effects of nerve gas.
When toxins of the same type are given to animals, studies show, similar abnormalities in the same regions of the brain resulted, Dr. Fleckenstein said.
Last month, the Pentagon raised the possibility for the first time of a connection between Gulf War illness and PB. It said more scientific study is needed before it can either confirm a connection or rule it out.
Persian Gulf War veterans who report their ailments to the Veterans Affairs office in Augusta are given a standard evaluation, which is the first step of treating the individual ailments, said Rosalie Bell, Veterans Affairs spokeswoman. As of today, the Veteran Administration has given 716 veterans examinations since 1995, she said.
The conditions seen in Augusta that are Gulf War illness-related are fatigue, weight loss, joint pain, memory loss and some rashes, she said.
The new findings did not surprise Charles Townsend, 49, one of the study's subjects.
He served as an airborne sergeant with the 50th Signal Battalion during the war and now can reel off a list of his symptoms, including ulcers in his sinus cavities and colon, swollen lymph nodes, rashes, severe headaches and bleeding gums.
"You forget where you're going, you don't remember a word you want to speak as you're preparing to speak it. It interrupts the train of thought," he said.
Mr. Townsend said he has been called a liar by Veterans Administration doctors, but he is convinced his problems stem from exposure to chemicals during the war.
Mr. Townsend, who is on full disability because of his illness, said he is unsure of what practical effect the study will have.
"My problem is the politics of it," he said. "When is this going to filter down to a single doctor in the Dallas V.A.?"
Dr. Fleckenstein said treatments are being explored by his colleague Dr. Robert W. Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern. Dr. Haley helped define gulf war syndromes and identify toxic exposures associated with the likelihood of having them. He also revealed enzyme abnormalities that may be part of a biological basis for the disease.
Staff writer Clarissa J. Walker contributed to this article.