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J Clin Immunol. 2004 Jan;24(1):66-73.

Cellular immune activation in Gulf War veterans.

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  • 1Department of Immunobiology, King's & St. Thomas' School of Medicine, King's College London, London, UK.


The etiology and pathology of illnesses related to the first Persian Gulf War are unclear. Among the constellation of symptoms noted in sick veterans, some, such as skin rashes, musculoskeletal pains, and neuropsychiatric problems, have been proposed to reflect an underlying immune dysfunction. In this study we explored the hypothesis that sickness following deployment to the Gulf in 1991 is associated with altered immune function, and we examine possible associated exposures. In particular, we focused on peripheral blood Th1/Th2 balance by measuring intracellular production of IFN-gamma, IL-2 (Th1), IL-4 (Th2), and IL-10 by CD4 T cells, using a nested case control study design within a large epidemiological survey. We compared symptomatic Gulf War veterans (sGWV) with well GWVs (wGWV), and a second control group of symptomatic veterans who served in Bosnia or were nondeployed military personnel of the same era. We found evidence for an altered immune status in sGWV in comparison to the other study groups. In particular, ongoing Th1-type immune activation was associated with multisymptom illness in GWVs, with sick veterans having significantly elevated levels of IFN-gamma and IL-2 producing CD4+ cells in the absence of in vitro stimulation compared with wGWVs (P = 0.01 and P =0.001). In vitro polyclonal activation revealed significantly elevated levels of IL-10 producing memory CD4 cells in sGWVs (P <0.001), but other cytokines were normal. In terms of possible exposures that might influence immune function, we found a trend for reduced levels of IFN-gamma producing cells after polyclonal activation with increasing numbers of vaccines administered (P <0.05) but no changes in other cytokines. These data show that multisymptom illness in Gulf War veterans is characterized by ongoing Th1-type immune activation and a biased generation of memory cells secreting the suppressor cytokine, IL-10.

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