Cerebral white matter structure is disrupted in Gulf War Veterans with chronic musculoskeletal pain

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Abstract

Chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP) affects ∼25% of the 700,000 Veterans deployed during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). The cause of their pain is unknown, and there are no efficacious treatments. A small body of literature suggests that brain abnormalities exist in Gulf War Veterans (GVs), yet relationships between brain abnormalities and disease symptoms remain largely unexplored. Our purpose was to compare white matter (WM) integrity between GVCMP and matched, healthy Veteran controls (GVCO) and investigate relationships between cerebral WM integrity and symptoms. Thirty GVCMP and 31 controls completed magnetic resonance imaging with diffusion tensor imaging. Tract-based spatial statistics estimated WM fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, radial diffusivity, and axial diffusivity over the whole brain (P < 0.05) and were corrected using threshold-free cluster enhancement. GVCMP had greater pain symptoms and mood disturbance and lower quality of life and physical function compared with GVCO (P < 0.05). GVCMP had lower WM integrity across several brain regions implicated in chronic pain (P < 0.05) including the middle and inferior frontal gyrus, corpus callosum, corona radiata, precentral gyrus, external capsule, and posterior thalamic radiation. For GVCMP, WM integrity was associated with pain and mood symptoms in widespread brain areas that were found to be different between groups (P < 0.05). Results indicate widespread WM microstructure disruption across brain regions implicated in pain processing and modulation in chronic pain. The observed relationships between WM microstructure and symptoms encourage the testing of treatments designed to improve the brain health of affected Veterans.

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