Researchers examining the brains of 40 former staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba found that whatever happened to cause the so-called “sonic attacks” in Havana changed the brain structure of those affected. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania used MRI scans to examine the brains of the staffers and compared them to two control groups. Lead researcher Dr. Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology at Penn, called the differences in the brains between the two groups “pretty jaw-dropping”. The findings have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The first incidents in Havana were reported at the end of 2016, after the Obama administration reopened the embassy in an effort to improve relations with Cuba. Numerous employees developed what became known as “Havana Syndrome,” characterized by headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms. The symptoms reportedly started after they heard penetrating, high-pitched sounds. The most recent confirmed case occurred in May of last year.
The incidents created a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Havana. Most State Department employees were removed from the island nation in 2017. The U.S. also suspended visa processing in Havana. Canadian embassy employees also complained of similar health issues to those of the Americans. Canada confirmed 14 cases, prompting the removal of its diplomats and their family members from the island.
Verma and her team at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine analyzed magnetic resonance imaging scans of 23 men and 17 women affected by the incidents in Havana. These images were compared to similar scans from 48 other adults in two control groups. The researchers found what they called “significant differences” in the volume of white and gray matter, in the cerebellum, and in the “functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks.”
Verma said, “Most of these patients had a particular type of symptoms and there is a clinical abnormality that is being reflected in an imaging anomaly.” The researchers did not draw any conclusions about the cause of the symptoms. The researchers also did not not connect the observed changes to specific diagnoses, like mild brain traumatic injury or concussion.