A small research study at Baylor University has identified a genetic difference between veterans who developed symptoms of Gulf War illness after deploying to that 1990-91 conflict and those who deployed but didn't get sick.
The finding — touted as the first "direct evidence" that genetic factors may contribute to a veteran's risk for Gulf War illness — links the use of anti-nerve agent pills and troops' genetic makeup.
Baylor University Institute of Biomedical Studies researcher Lea Steele and others examined the genetic profile of 304 Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans, including 144 former troops who had Gulf War illness symptoms and 160 who did not.
The scientists found that veterans with a gene variant that complicates their bodies' efforts to metabolize chemicals in anti-nerve agent pills — pyridostigmine bromide, or PB — were up to 40 times more likely to have Gulf War illness symptoms than those who took the pills or were exposed but had a different gene variant.
Steele said the findings are preliminary but point to a physical reason why as many as one in four troops who deployed to the region fell ill while others came through fine.
"Scientists have long thought this might be because of some genetic interaction. We know different people break down toxicants differently based on their genotypes," Steele said.