(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf War Syndrome has been an agonizing fallout for the troops who fought Iraq to a decisive victory for the U.S.-led coalition more than 25 years ago. For decades, thousands of troops have had symptoms such as insomnia, cognitive deficits and headaches. As many as 250,000 troops have been hit with the little-understood neurological condition, according to some estimates.

The latest theory holds that organophosphate nerve agents like sarin and cyclosarin were released into the environment when the U.S. bombed an ammunition depot during the conflict.

A new in-vitro experiment by scientists at Drexel University offers a potential treatment for Gulf War Syndrome sufferers, and others who may be affected by pesticide exposure, they report in the journal Traffic.

The researchers took cultures of human and rat neurons and treated them with an organophosphate called diisopropyl flurophosphate, similar to sarin, as well as stress hormones. The two chemical factors are intended to mimic the environment soldiers experienced in the Gulf War conflict.

The scientists then treated the neurons with tubacin, a compound which inhibits the enzyme HDAC6.

The tubacin almost totally restored the normal functioning of microtubules, a transport pathway within cells suspected to be the culprit behind the Gulf War symptoms, the scientists report. The tubacin also straightened out deficits in mitochondrial transport and dopamine release, they add.

“Thus various negative effects of the toxicant/stress exposures were at least partially correctable by restoring microtubule acetylation to a more normal status,” they conclude. “Such an approach may have therapeutic benefit for individuals suffering from (Gulf War Syndrome) or other neurological disorders linked to organophosphate exposure.” 

The look into the still-mysterious illness is part of the Gulf War Illness Consortium. Drexel University and Boston University recently announced funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to create a human stem cell repository for Gulf War Syndrome sufferers. Part of that effort will involve taking the veterans’ blood cells and “reprogramming” them into pluripotent stem cells for further studies, they added.

A previous Boston University study in a special issue of the journal Cortex last year found that there were other “toxic wounds” for the U.S. and Coalition troops 25 years ago. Those exposures included pesticides, burning oil wells – and even the ingestion of a prophylactic pill to counteract nerve gas known as pyridostigmine bromide, or PB.