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First study pinpoints cause of Gulf War illness

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Gulf War illness is caused by mitochondrial dysfunction finds new research

In the first study of its kind, researchers have deemed Gulf War illness to be real. Scientists have discovered the illness is the result of impaired ability of dysfunction of the energy producing portion of cells, known as the mitochondria.

Gulf War Illness not from stress

According to new findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, Gulf War illness doesn't come from stress at all, which was previously believed.

The discovery comes from researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine who used a specialized type of cell imaging to uncover what causes symptoms of the condition that affects veterans of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.

"Fatigue, cognitive and other brain-related challenges, muscle problems and exercise intolerance", in addition to gastrointestinal and neurological problems are common explains the study's lead investigator Beatrice A. Golomb MD, PhD, professor of medicine in a press release.

The March 27, 2014 published study could mean new treatment for the condition that affects hundreds of thousands of veterans

The study

Golomb and her team used 31-phosphorus magnetic resonance spectroscopy or 31P-MRS for the study that can measure the amount of phosphorous -- required for energy -- in a cell.

When mitochondria malfunction it takes longer for a particular compound known as phosphocreatine or PCr to replete within the cells. One of the ways researchers identify mitochondrial dysfunction is by looking at the recovery time of PCr after exercise.

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The study investigators matched 14 study participants - seven Gulf War veterans and seven people used for control.

The veterans all had impaired PCr recovery following exercise compared to controls that Golomb said was significant.

The finding also helps explain some of the symptoms of Gulf War illness caused by exposure to chemicals in pesticides, nerve gas and in pills given for nerve gas treatment pills to veterans.

“These inhibitors have known mitochondrial toxicity and generally show the strongest and most consistent relationship to predicting Gulf War illness. Mitochondrial problems account for which exposures relate to Gulf War illness, which symptoms predominate, how Gulf War illness symptoms manifest themselves, what objective tests have been altered, and why routine blood tests have not been useful," Golomb said.

What is mitochondrial disease?

Mitochondrial disease is known to damage cells in multiple systems throughout the body. The tiny organelles have an important role in every cell of the body. The primary body systems affected are the brain, heart, skeletal muscles, kidney, glands, liver and lungs.

Disease of the mitochondria comes from mutation of mtDNA or nDNA and there are hundreds of variations of mitochondrial disease.

There is no known cure and symptoms are mysterious and bewildering to clinicians and patients alike. The treatment is generally symptomatic as there is no known cure. Scientists are working on ways to inhibit the signaling pathway that breaks down energy in the cells. A recent study of mice showed the drug rapamycin could be such a candidate.

The finding that Gulf War illness is real and not imagined means potential new treatments and ways to protect veterans and the public from toxic chemicals.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons