Health Watch -- Gulf War Syndrome and the Nervous System

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A primitive part of the nervous system could account for some symptoms of Gulf War syndrome.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas found that damage to the parasympathetic nervous system may cause nearly half of the common symptoms usually associated with Gulf War syndrome. The parasympathetic nervous system controls automatic bodily functions like digestion and sleep. It's a counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or- flight instinct.

Gulf War syndrome symptoms that could be related to the parasympathetic nervous system include gallbladder disease, unrefreshing sleep, depression, joint pain, chronic diarrhea and sexual dysfunction. Dr. Robert Haley, the UT Southwestern epidemiologist who led the study, says gallbladder disease is usually seen in older women, rather than in young men like those in the population affected by Gulf War syndrome.

Isolating parasympathetic nervous system activity has been difficult. The UT Southwestern researchers monitored heartbeat changes in veterans with Gulf War syndrome symptoms and in healthy veterans from the same unit. Parasympathetic brain action normally peaks during deep sleep, but didn't change in veterans with Gulf War syndrome, even though they appeared to be sleeping. Brain function was normal in the well veterans. This could explain why patients with Gulf War syndrome don't feel refreshed after sleep.

Researchers didn't notice changes in sympathetic nervous system function between the ill veterans and the healthy ones.

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Oct. 2004

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