Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Environmental Health


Gulf war illness, Neurotoxicant, Veterans, Gulf war, common data elements, repository, cognitive








BACKGROUND: During deployment, veterans of the 1991 Gulf War (GW) were exposed to multiple war-related toxicants. Roughly a third of these veterans continue to exhibit neurotoxicant induced symptoms of Gulf War Illness (GWI), a multi-faceted condition that includes fatigue, pain and cognitive decrements. When studied empirically, both deployed veterans with exposures and those who meet the criteria for GWI are more likely to show deficits in the area of neuropsychological functioning. Although studies have shown cognitive impairments in small sample sizes, it is necessary to revisit these findings with larger samples and newer cohorts to see if other areas of deficit emerge with more power to detect such differences. A group of researchers and clinicians with expertise in the area of GWI have identified common data elements (CDE) for use in research samples to compare data sets. At the same time, a subgroup of researchers created a new repository to share these cognitive data and biospecimens within the GWI research community.

METHODS: The present study aimed to compare cognitive measures of attention, executive functioning, and verbal memory in a large sample of GWI cases and healthy GW veteran controls using neuropsychological tests recommended in the CDEs. We additionally subdivided samples based on the specific neurotoxicant exposures related to cognitive deficits and compared exposed versus non-exposed veterans regardless of case criteria status. The total sample utilized cognitive testing outcomes from the newly collated Boston, Biorepository, Recruitment, and Integrative Network (BBRAIN) for GWI.

RESULTS: Participants included 411 GW veterans, 312 GWI (cases) and 99 healthy veterans (controls). Veterans with GWI showed significantly poorer attention, executive functioning, learning, and short-and-long term verbal memory than those without GWI. Further, GW veterans with exposures to acetylcholinesterase inhibiting pesticides and nerve gas agents, had worse performance on executive function tasks. Veterans with exposure to oil well fires had worse performance on verbal memory and those with pyridostigmine bromide anti-nerve gas pill exposures had better verbal memory and worse performance on an attention task compared to unexposed veterans.

CONCLUSIONS: This study replicates prior results regarding the utility of the currently recommended CDEs in determining impairments in cognitive functioning in veterans with GWI in a new widely-available repository cohort and provides further evidence of cognitive decrements in GW veterans related to war-related neurotoxicant exposures.


Funding Funds for this study came from the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) at the US Department of Defense, through the Gulf War Illness Research Program grant # W81XWH-18-1-0549 to Dr. Kimberly Sullivan.

Disclaimer Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense or the Department of Veteran Afairs. The U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity, 820 Chandler Street, Fort Detrick MD 21702–5014 is the awarding and administering acquisition office for this work.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.