UCA professor researching Gulf War Syndrome

By Courtney Spradlin

University of Central Arkansas professor Patrick Carmack is working on what could be a monumental step in the detection and treatment of neurological disorders.

Carmack is an assistant professor of mathematics, who attended the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. At the school, he paired with a fellow student, Jeff Spence, to tackle a project bankrolled by Ross Perot.

According to Carmack, Perot became involved in research pertaining to Gulf War veterans suffering from symptoms that seemed to stem from neurological deterioration, or as it’s commonly known, Gulf War Syndrome.

Carmack said several reports came to Perot of veterans who, before the war had promising military careers ahead of them and could now no longer perform basic functions such as walking, problem solving and short term memorization.

Initially, Perot approached Robert Haley, epidemiologist at UT Southwestern, who began research with a basic questionnaire.

The questionnaire assessed veterans’ locations in the war, medications used, and according to Carmack, data revealed an emerging pattern of damage to the brains of veterans pertaining to location and the issuance of medications by the U.S. government.

A medicine called Pyridostigmine Bromide, developed in the 1950s, was administered to soldiers because of evidence suggesting it may protect them from toxins in Sarin nerve gas, which Carmack said Iraq had stores of at the time.

Carmack also attributes some of the veterans’ chemical exposure to a pesticide used by the military to kill fleas in desert areas.

Carmack said Haley contacted students at the school asking for their assistance.

In 2002, Carmack and Spence joined the UT Southwestern research team. “My strong math background and Spence’s strong medical background put together made it the right place and the right time,” Carmack said. “We tore the whole thing down, along with the analysis process for brain scans and started over from scratch.”

Carmack found that areas of damaged brain tissue were consistent with symptoms exhibited by veterans. The analysis system Carmack and Spence had access to pointed directly to the parts of the brain which were damaged, Carmack said.

With what Carmack called “solid evidence” Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson arranged a $75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs budget to develop a conclusion and application to the findings. Carmack said legal issues between UT Southwestern and the VA brought the project to a gridlock.

According to Carmack, the VA agreed to release paperwork it had for contracts and reimbursement if the research team agreed to terminate the contract this May. Carmack said the VA has been fighting against the initial amount of $75 million and is trying to retain the $30 million left in the contract.

With about 24 terabytes of data to analyze, Carmack and other associate researchers and analysts from several other universities such as the University of Florida, Emory College and John Hopkins University Medical School are scrambling to get funding.

“To keep the research database online costs alone $100,000 a year,” Carmack said.

He is now asking senators and Congress for additional funding to continue his research. Carmack said with these findings, a diagnostic tool could change the way brain disorders are treated. “The research we are learning here can be applied to other cases involving Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and other disorders, Carmack said.

“We will see changes now like we did with heart disease in the 1970s. We know very little about the brain in general. We are hoping in the next 20 to 30 years to do for the brain what they did with heart disease back then.”

Carmack said the findings and application could have a significant impact on the detection of Alzheimer’s.

“It is difficult to detect it right now, and the diagnosis is often indirect,” Carmack said. “If we get the image technology down, we’ll do a better job detecting it earlier.”

Carmack said there will be ramifications in cancer as well.

“We can keep people from going through pain and even death from these things. This is all going to explode within the next few years, and certainly within my lifetime,” Carmack said. “Everyone in the project has their own interests. Some have specialties in schizophrenia, some in substance abuse, cancer, Alzheimer’s. This is a monumental project.”


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