Gulf War Vets' Fatigue Linked to Gene

Study suggests combat environment may trigger syndrome

FRIDAY, May 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The chronic fatigue associated with Gulf War syndrome may be caused by a gene, researchers report.

A new study finds chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is almost four times as common in veterans of the first Gulf War compared to civilians.

CFS has no known medical cause and produces a substantial decrease in a patient's activity. Symptoms associated with infection, as well as rheumatological and neuropsychiatric problems, also accompany CFS.

In Gulf War veterans, CFS is almost epidemic. While the exact cause is unknown, genetic factors appear to play a role, the study said.

"It is known that Gulf War veterans have an increased risk of having CFS," said study co-author Dr. Benjamin Natelson, director of the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

"We looked at veterans and non-veterans in terms of one gene, because there was information that what the gene makes might be abnormal in CFS," he added.

Natelson and his colleague, Dr. Georgirene Vladutiu, took blood samples from 49 Gulf War veterans with CFS and 61 civilians with CFS. They also took blood samples from 30 healthy veterans and 45 healthy civilians.

The researchers looked specifically at the DCP1 gene and found veterans with CFS had a higher prevalence of the so-called D variant of that gene. In fact, veterans with the DD genotype were eight times more likely to have CFS compared to the other genotypes, according to the report in the May 14 issue of Muscle and Nerve.

The DD genotype has been associated with alcoholism and cardiac disease, Natelson noted.

"This finding suggests that there could be some kind of genetic predisposition, or maybe even a risk factor, for developing this war-related illness," he said.

Natelson explained CFS is not unique to the Gulf War. Between 5 percent and 7 percent of troops develop unexplained fatigue and pain, so maybe there is a genetic predisposition that is triggered by the combat environment.

Triggers might include stress, exposure to diesel fuel or other chemicals or anti-nerve gas medicines, Natelson said.

The next step in the research is to see if the same thing occurred in other war zones, such as Bosnia, and if the same genetic link is present, he said.

Maybe someday there will be a clinical use for this data, Natelson said. "But that's an if piled on an if."

"Finding genes that may be involved CFS is incredibly important," said Dr. Leonard Jason, a professor of psychology at De Paul University.

"There are some individuals who have said that CFS is a psychogenic illness; that it is just a version of mass hysteria. Other people have felt that there really is a biologic predisposition for CFS," Jason said.

Jason believes CFS may really be a combination of a genetic predisposition that can be triggered by certain types of stress or other risk factors.

"Most scientists today think that, from CFS to cancer to AIDS and onwards, there is some type of mind-body interactions that can be exacerbated by environmental or psychological characteristics," he said.

More information

The University of Michigan discusses Gulf War syndrome, while the University of Maryland can tell you more about chronic fatigue syndrome.

SOURCES: Benjamin Natelson, M.D., director, War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center, VA Medical Center, and CFS Cooperative Research Center, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, East Orange; Leonard Jason, Ph.D., professor, psychology and director, Center for Community Research, De Paul University, Chicago; May 14, 2004, Muscle and Nerve
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