Diplomats in Havana and their mysterious concussion-like symptoms
American diplomats who were posted to Havana were reported to have symptoms similar to concussions suffered after a head injury. This was despite the fact that none of them had had any head trauma. Initially it was speculated that they could have been victims to a “sonic attack” to their brains. However the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ruled out any such involvement last month.
In a new report published in the latest issue of the journal JAMA, this week, the series of cases encountered are discussed in details. The incident took place in 2016 when 18 of the 21 diplomats stationed at Havana reported that they could hear unnatural sounds in their hotel rooms or homes. The sounds were similar to grinding, humming, squeaking or buzzing. They could feel vibrations and when they rode cars with the windows rolled down they felt an increased pressure. The sounds led to headaches, loss of hearing and pain in the ears. Similar to concussion, the diplomats over a few days of this incident started having problems with memory, concentration and complained of mood swings and fatigue along with headaches. Sleep disturbances were seen in 18, vision problems in 18, cognitive problems in 17, headaches in 16, balancing difficulties in 15 and hearing problems in 15 of the sufferers.
The State Department had asked a team of experts at the University of Pennsylvania to look into the problems and they noted neurological symptoms that are similar to concussions. This new study came from the neurologists at the University. Lead author, Dr. Douglas H. Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania said in a statement that this was preliminary report and more detailed investigations were underway to understand what was happening. They issued this initial report “from a public health standpoint,” he said.
According to Smith, most of the sufferers clearly complained of symptoms that indicated a history of a concussion. Classic symptoms such as slower speed of processing and inability to remember were all there he added. He called this a “real syndrome”, where there was “concussion without blunt head trauma.” The recovery among the diplomats was also spontaneous in most he said. Some needed therapy to regain their cognitive skills and balance. But all of them returned to work after being “miserable” for a time he said. The team is certain that sound waves are not the cause of these injuries as sound waves are incapable of causing such damage to the brain at audible ranges. It could be a low frequency infrasound or high-frequency ultrasound or microwaves, they speculate that could have caused the brain damage.
Other experts state that the report was not completely reliable because these cases were not compared with controls. The scores on cognitive tests of these individuals were not compared with normal individuals with matched characteristics. Some experts say that the scores were lower but within normal limits. According to Dr. Christopher Muth, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who wrote an accompanying editorial, this study needs to be seen in a broader perspective and interpreted with caution. Dr. Muth said the tests were conducted an average of 200 days after the incident and during this time the sufferers may have discussed their symptoms with each other. Further the description of symptoms is a subjective phenomenon he said.
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