Effects of low-level sarin and cyclosarin exposure on hippocampal microstructure in Gulf War Veterans


This article examines the differences between veterans who were exposed to organophosphorus (OP) nerve agents during the Gulf War compared to unexposed veterans.


Abstract In early March 1991, shortly after the end of the Gulf War (GW), a munitions dump was destroyed at Khamisiyah, Iraq. Later, in 1996, the dump was found to have contained the organophosphorus (OP) nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin. We previously reported evidence of smaller hippocampal volumes in GW veterans with predicted exposure to the Khamisiyah plume compared to unexposed GW veterans. To investigate whether these macroscopic hippocampal volume changes are accompanied by microstructural alterations in the hippocampus, the current study acquired diffusion-tensor imaging (DTI), T1-, and T2-weighted images from 170 GW veterans (mean age: 53 ± 7 years), 81 of whom had predicted exposure to the Khamisiyah plume according to Department of Defense (DOD) plume modeling. We examined fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), and grey matter (GM) density from a hippocampal region of interest (ROI). Results indicate that, even after accounting for total hippocampal GM density (or hippocampal volume), age, sex, apolipoprotein ε4 genotype, and potential confounding OP pesticide exposures, hippocampal MD significantly predicted Khamisiyah exposure status (model p  = 0.005, R 2  = 0.215, standardized coefficient β  = 0.26, t  = 2.85). Hippocampal MD was also inversely correlated with verbal memory learning performance in the entire study sample ( p  = 0.001). There were no differences in hippocampal FA or GM density; however, veterans with predicted Khamisiyah exposure had smaller hippocampal volumes compared to unexposed veterans. Because MD is sensitive to general microstructural disruptions that lead to increased extracellular spaces due to neuronal death, inflammation and gliosis, and/or to axonal loss or demyelination, these findings suggest that low-level exposure to the Khamisiyah plume has a detrimental, lasting effects on both macro- and micro-structure of the hippocampus. Highlights Gulf War Veterans with predicted sarin exposure have greater hippocampal mean diffusivity (MD) than unexposed veterans. Higher hippocampal MD was also associated with poorer with verbal memory learning. Low-level sarin exposure may have resulted in microstructural disruption in the hippocampus.

Full Reference

Chao, Linda L. ; Zhang, Yu. (2018). Effects of low-level sarin and cyclosarin exposure on hippocampal microstructure in Gulf War Veterans, Neurotoxicology and teratology, Vol: 68, p.36-46.