Biomedical engineering student researches root cause of gulf war illness

During her upbringing, Claudia Collier, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University, was well aware that family outings could be disrupted at any moment. Her mother’s potential flare-ups were an ever-present concern, not due to a genetic disorder, disease, or virus, but rather the enduring legacy of her military service - Gulf War illness (GWI).

GWI is a persistent and multi-symptomatic condition that afflicts more than one-third of Gulf War veterans. The manifestations of GWI vary among individuals, encompassing fatigue, digestive troubles, joint pain, headaches, and memory lapses.

Now, after more than twenty years since her mother’s deployment, Collier is wholeheartedly devoted to unraveling the roots of GWI’s symptoms. The precise cause of this condition remains elusive but has been tentatively associated with diverse chemical exposures endured by soldiers during the Gulf War. Nevertheless, Collier posits that pyridostigmine bromide (PB), a nerve gas preventive measure, might be the primary culprit.

“Exposure to high levels of PB disrupts normal colon function, often resulting in persistent diarrhea or constipation,” Collier explains. “We’ve also observed elevated levels of neuroinflammation, stemming from an inflammatory response that not only occurs during exposure but lingers and sustains itself, contributing to the persistence of symptoms even two to three decades later.”

While the array of GWI symptoms is broad, Collier envisions a potential route to addressing the gastrointestinal dimension of the ailment.

“Surprisingly little research has been directed at understanding the gastrointestinal dysfunctions associated with GWI,” she notes. “The gut is akin to a second brain, endowed with its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. Additionally, there’s the immune aspect of the gut, adding another layer of complexity. The immune system can become compromised, leading to further complications like chronic inflammation.”

Biomedical engineering doctoral student Claudia Collier is working to find a treatment pathway for veterans who suffer from Gulf War illness. She conducts her research in the Stem Cell, Cancer and Immune Tissue Engineering Lab. Credit: Texas A&M University Engineering

Claudia Collier’s ongoing research is an extension of her paper titled “Disrupting Cholinergic Myenteric Neuroimmune Function: The Effects of Acute Pyridostigmine Bromide Exposure in Mice,” published in Advanced Biology. Her earlier discoveries revealed that PB interferes with the proliferation of neural stem cells responsible for replenishing aging and dying neurons within the enteric nervous system.

“In cases of neuroinflammation, neurons gradually perish,” Collier explains. “Coupled with the inability of enteric neural stem cells to regenerate, the result is a colon deprived of the necessary nerves for normal motility. This, we believe, is the predicament faced by these veterans, explaining why they continue to endure symptoms. There’s no natural healing or regeneration occurring, and the condition worsens over time, particularly as our veterans age.”

The prevailing approach to treating GWI in veterans often falls short of addressing their comprehensive needs, typically offering relief for just one symptom among many. Collier aspires to develop a holistic treatment by uncovering the root cause of GWI.

“GWI presents a daunting challenge due to its impact on a multitude of bodily systems,” Collier remarks. “While it may affect a relatively small portion of the population, it’s crucial to remember that these are people whose quality of life is severely compromised. Our ongoing research is a quest to enhance their quality of life.”

Under the guidance of Dr. Shreya Raghavan, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department, Collier conducts her research in the Stem Cell, Cancer, and Immune Tissue Engineering Lab. Her commitment to finding answers for GWI-affected veterans is unwavering.

“My mother was deployed to Kuwait during the Desert Storm and Desert Shield era, and upon her return, she exhibited GWI symptoms, which were subsequently diagnosed,” Collier shares. “For me, research is a tangible means to make a difference, not only for my mother but for all those grappling with GWI.”

Source: Texas A&M University

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