Gulf war syndrome: a toxic exposure? A systematic review

Neurol Clin. 2005 May;23(2):523-40. doi: 10.1016/j.ncl.2004.12.011.


Using the strength-of-conclusion scheme enumerated in Box 2, based on two class II studies, there is probably a causal link between deployment to the Persian Gulf theater of operation and the development of the poorly defined multisymptom illness known as GWS (level B). Based on class IV studies, there is insufficient evidence to determine if exposure to toxins encountered during the Persian Gulf war caused GWS (level U). A major limitation of the literature regarding the GWS is the reliance on self-reporting to measure exposure to putative causal toxins. Although objective measures of toxin exposure in GWV generally is unavailable, modeling techniques to estimate exposure levels to low-level nerve agents and smoke from oil well fires have been developed. It would be useful to determine if exposure levels determined by these techniques are associated with GWS. The lack of a clear case definition GWS also hampers research. Some go even further, claiming that the absence of such a definition renders the condition illegitimate. Although an objective marker to GWS would be useful for studies, the absence of such a marker does not make the syndrome any less legitimate. in essence, GWS merely is a convenient descriptive term that describes a phenomenon: GWV reporting suffering from medically unexplained health-related symptoms. In this sense, it shares much with the other medically unexplained syndromes encountered in practice. The real debate surrounding medically unexplained conditions is not whether or not they exist, but defining their cause. In this regard, investigators fall into two camps. One camp insists that the conditions are caused by a yet-to-be-discovered medical problem, rejecting out of hand the possibility of a psychologic origin. The other camp insists the conditions are fundamentally psychogenic rejecting the possibility of an undiscovered medical condition. The evidence shows, however, that the conditions exists, the suffering is real, and the causes are unknown.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Neurotoxins / adverse effects
  • Persian Gulf Syndrome / etiology*


  • Neurotoxins