Researchers at Southern Methodist University are pioneering the use of spatial statistical modeling to analyze brain scan data from Persian Gulf War veterans. The goal is to pinpoint specific areas of the brain affected by Gulf War Syndrome.

Richard Gunst, Wayne Woodward and William Schucany, professors in SMU’s Department of Statistical Science in Dedman College, are collaborating with imaging specialists at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas to compare brain scans of veterans suffering from the syndrome with those of a healthy control group.

gunst.jpgThe SMU team is working with renowned UTSW epidemiologist Robert Haley, one of the foremost experts on the syndrome.

A congressionally mandated study has revealed that one of every four veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffers from neurological symptoms collectively referred to as Gulf War Syndrome. The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses began work in 2002 and presented its lengthy report to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake on Nov. 17.ww2.gifPersian Gulf War veterans from across the country are being tested at UTSW using a type of brain imaging called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI.

Richard Gunst

The veterans are tested while performing tasks intended to activate specific regions of the brain.

Photo right: Wayne Woodward

The SMU team, which includes graduate students Patrick Carmack and Jeffrey Spence, is analyzing brain activation signals reflected from the multiple images taken of each subject’s brain. From that they’ll determine which variations occur naturally and which are due to the syndrome. Previous analyses have been unable to separate real distinctions from “noise.”

Schucany%202008.jpgThe SMU team’s primary challenge is in identifying differences in brain activation from locations deep within the brain using measured brain signals that are weak and vary from location to location.

Spatial modeling uses information from neighboring locations to strengthen the weak signals in active brain locations so the signal can be detected as real.

“Spatial modeling in brain imaging is new,” Gunst said. “This has not been done the way we are doing it.”
William Schucany

Rapid technological advances in medical imaging of the human brain are imposing demands for new statistical methods that can be used to detect small differences between normal and dysfunctional brain activity, Gunst said. — Kim Cobb

Related links:
Air Force Times: Study links Gulf War exposures, brain changes
Panel: Gulf War Syndrome is real
Gulf War Syndrome research overview
Richard Gunst
Wayne Woodward
William Schucany
SMU Profile: Patrick Carmack and Jeffrey Spence
Robert Haley
UTSouthwestern, Division of Epidemiology: Gulf War Associated Illnesses
SMU honors alumnus Robert Haley
SMU Department of Statistical Science
Explainer: Spatial statistical modeling
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences