Veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War may be more than twice as likely to be stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease than members of the general population are, new findings suggest. What is more, the condition often strikes vets sooner than those who did not serve, according to the results of two studies published in the current issue of the journal Neurology.

Some soldiers who completed tours of duty during the first Gulf conflict complained of ill health after their return home. Gulf War syndrome, which lists fatigue, joint pain, depression, balance problems and diarrhea among its symptoms, was first diagnosed in 1997 and is said to be linked to exposure to toxic chemicals. That same year, Robert Haley of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center began investigating a potential connection between time served in the Persian Gulf and Lou Gehrig's disease--amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)--after receiving a request from a 35-year-old veteran suffering from the fatal affliction. The researchers located 17 veterans under the age of 45 who were diagnosed with ALS between 1991 and 1998. Of these individuals, five were diagnosed in 1998--in contrast to the 1.38 cases expected for an age group of this size. "The increasing slope of the epidemic curve beginning three years after the Gulf War and still increasing in 1998 further supports a true excess and raises the possibility of an even larger ALS problem in future years in the Gulf War veteran population," Haley notes.

The Veterans Affairs department began an independent investigation of ALS incidence among veterans one year after Haley's study began. Ronnie D. Horner of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and his colleagues studied medical records of nearly 2.5 million eligible military personnel. The scientists determined that deployed militaries were twice as likely as soldiers not sent to the region to develop ALS. Both studies identify young veterans suffering from a disease that typically strikes people over the age of 50. "It raises the question," Haley remarks, "whether the condition might have been caused--or triggered prematurely--by unusual environmental exposures in the war."