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UC San Diego scientists contest longstanding hypothesis about mysterious illness affecting Gulf War veterans, providing first direct evidence that symptoms are driven by impaired mitochondria.
Gulf War Illness (GWI) is a chronic multisymptom health condition affecting one-third of all veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War, most of whom remain afflicted more than 30 years later. Common symptoms include fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, diarrhea, insomnia, and cognitive impairment.
The condition is believed to have been triggered by veterans’ exposure to environmental toxins. However, its exact mechanism in the body continues to be debated, making it difficult to diagnose and treat. The prevailing notion is that inflammation is the driving force of the symptoms, as inflammatory markers are modestly higher in affected veterans than in healthy controls. However, a rival hypothesis suggests mitochondria — the energy-producing organelle found in most cells — may be the true source of the symptoms.
In a new study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine put both ideas head-to-head, directly assessing mitochondrial impairment and inflammation in 36 individuals, 19 of whom were veterans with GWI. The findings, published on July 12, 2023, in Scientific Reports, suggest that impaired mitochondrial function, and not inflammation, is the main driver of GWI symptoms and should be the primary target of future clinical interventions.“
This is a radical rethinking of the pathology of GWI,” said corresponding author Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “For veterans who have long struggled to get effective care, this discovery could be a real game changer.”