When she returned from the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Air Force nurse Denise Nichols experienced sudden aches, fatigue and cognitive problems, but she had no idea what was causing them. They grew worse: Even helping her daughter with multiplication tables became difficult, she says, and eventually she had to 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 instead of counseling.
Military authorities in various countries consistently denied in the past that there was a physical basis to GWS. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs now accepts that the disorder is physical, 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.
Coughlin told the panel: "If the studies produce results that do not support the [VA's] unwritten policy, they do not release them. . . . On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible. . . . Anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to ever be published."
In response, the VA said that the organization has a "long history of conducting world-class research studies that meet accepted and rigorous scientific standards." They also note that "all allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully."