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Brainstem damage is associated with poorer sleep quality and increased pain in gulf war illness veterans.

Zhang Y, Vakhtin AA, Dietch J, Jennings JS, Yesavage JA, Clark JD, Bayley PJ, Ashford JW, Furst AJ. Brainstem damage is associated with poorer sleep quality and increased pain in gulf war illness veterans. Life sciences. 2021 Sep 1; 280:119724.

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AIMS: Gulf War Illness (GWI) is manifested as multiple chronic symptoms, including chronic pain, chronic fatigue, sleep problems, neuropsychiatric disorders, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and skin problems. No single target tissue or unifying pathogenic process has been identified that accounts for this variety of symptoms. The brainstem has been suspected to contribute to this multiple symptomatology. The aim of this study was to assess the role of the brainstem in chronic sleep problems and pain in GWI veterans. MATERIALS AND METHODS: We enrolled 90 veterans (Age  =  50 ± 5, 87% Male) who were deployed to the 1990-91 Gulf War and presented with GWI symptoms. Sleep quality was evaluated using the global Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. Pain intensities were obtained with the Brief Pain Inventory sum score. Volumes in cortical, subcortical, brainstem, and brainstem subregions and diffusion tensor metrics in 10 bilateral brainstem tracts were tested for correlations with symptom measures. KEY FINDINGS: Poorer sleep quality was significantly correlated with atrophy of the whole brainstem and brainstem subregions (including midbrain, pons, medulla). Poorer sleep quality also significantly correlated with lower fractional anisotropy in the nigrostriatal tract, medial forebrain tract, and the dorsal longitudinal fasciculus. There was a significant correlation between increased pain intensity and decreased fractional anisotropy in the dorsal longitudinal fasciculus. These correlations were not altered after controlling for age, sex, total intracranial volumes, or additional factors, e.g., depression and neurological conditions. SIGNIFICANCE: These findings suggest that the brainstem plays an important role in the aberrant neuromodulation of sleep and pain symptoms in GWI.

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