Background. Complaints of poor memory and concentration are common in veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War as are other symptoms. Despite a large research effort, such symptoms remain largely unexplained.
Method. A comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests and rating scales was administered to 341 UK servicemen who were returnees from the Gulf War and peace keeping duties in Bosnia, plus non-deployed military controls. All were drawn from a large randomized survey. Most were selected on the basis of impaired physical functioning defined operationally.
Results. Group comparisons revealed an association between physical functioning and symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress reactions, increased anger and subjective cognitive failures. Poorer performance on some general cognitive measures, sequencing and attention was also seen in association with being ‘ill’ but virtually all differences disappeared after adjusting for depressed mood or multiple comparisons. Deployment was also associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress and subjective cognitive failures, independently of health status, as well as minor general cognitive and constructional impairment. The latter remained significantly poorer in the Gulf group even after adjusting for depressed mood.
Conclusions. Disturbances of mood are more prominent than quantifiable cognitive deficits in Gulf War veterans and probably lead to subjective underestimation of ability. Task performance deficits can themselves be explained by depressed mood although the direction of causality cannot be inferred confidently. Reduced constructional ability cannot be explained in this way and could be an effect of Gulf-specific exposures.
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