Some 250,000 veterans of the U.S. armed forces are experiencing health problems following their deployment in the Gulf War. Researchers at a new biobank are working to understand why.
The Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Biorepository will follow the health of registered veterans through surveys and electronic medical records. Then, upon their death, the repository will collect brain and organ tissue for long term storage and research.
This combination of medical history and preserved tissue is key to the study’s success. As Christopher Brady, PhD, director of scientific operations for the project, points out, the tissue that’s obtained postmortem becomes much more valuable for research purposes when there’s information about the study participants from when they were alive.
Researchers want to better understand why veterans have been experiencing unexplained symptoms from their deployment. Known as Gulf War Illness, more than one-third of deployed veterans experience chronic fatigue, headaches, joint pain and problems with respiratory and digestive function. A variety of causes have been proposed, from exposure to depleted uranium to vaccinations, but no solid causal link has been found . . . and a cure or treatment remains elusive.
To that end, the department of Veterans Affairs has been keen to enroll large numbers of men and women who served during the Gulf War. In addition, since a control population is fundamental for studies like this, the VA wants all veterans to register regardless of symptoms or actual deployment to the Gulf.
The collected tissue will be stored at the VA medical center in Tuscon, Arizona. A biorepository was previously established there to study veterans with ALS, and it currently holds 120 brains donated between 2003 and 2009. Scientists in Tuscon will collaborate with researchers at VA hospitals in Boston and other cities to learn how they can better treat the symptoms of Gulf War Illness.
The Tuscon biorepository isn’t the only facility studying the brains of military veterans. It joins the ranks of Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine Brain Tissue Repository, established last year to research traumatic brain injury in soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.