Neuroepidemiology

Since 1994 the Division of Epidemiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center has been performing research on the nature, causes, and pathophysiologic mechanisms of Gulf War Illness, a neurologic condition that affects tens of thousands of 1991 Gulf War veterans. 

This research has led to a quantitative description and definition of a new illness, epidemiologic links with low-level sarin nerve agent and other neurotoxic environmental exposures in the war, definition of a genetic predisposition from deficiency of paraoxonase 1 (PON1) isoenzymes in the blood, and demonstration of brain cell damage and functional abnormalities in deep brain structures underlying the symptoms.

In response to concerns of an excess incidence of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, among Gulf War veterans who developed the disease, the Division performed an epidemiologic investigation, concluding that the number of ALS cases in young Gulf War veterans has exceeded the expected number. This indicated a likely causal link with environmental exposures in the war. 

A subsequent epidemiologic study by the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed the finding and led to official service-connection of ALS by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

To further research on brain involvement in Gulf War-related illnesses and related conditions, the Division has established a Neuroimaging Research Laboratory, a Biochemical Epidemiology Laboratory, and a Neurophysiology Laboratory.

Division faculty members have also conducted a nationwide survey of Gulf War-era veterans with a follow-up neuroimaging and biomarker study, and organized and sponsored basic neuroscience studies of the effects of pesticides similar to nerve agents on brain cells.

Division Chief Robert Haley, M.D., served on the VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, which advises the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on directions for research on this problem.