A forthcoming article in the Journal of the American Medical Association describes brain abnormalities in U.S. diplomats who had been stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana Cuba and who have been suffering hearing, vision, balance and memory damage. The article is written by physicians at the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania who have treated the diplomats with input from the State Department’s medical unit and other government doctors.
The abnormalities are in the brain’s white matter tracts that let different parts of the brain communicate with one another. But doctors still do not know how patients ended up with the white matter changes or how exactly those changes might relate to their symptoms.
U.S. officials also will not say whether the changes were found in all 24 patients. Most patients have fully recovered, some after rehabilitation and other treatment, officials said. Many are back at work. About one-quarter had symptoms that persisted for long periods or remain to this day.
U.S. officials have told the Associated Press that investigators have now determined:
- The most frequently reported sound patients heard was a high-pitched chirp or grating metal. Fewer recalled a low-pitched noise, like a hum.
- Some were asleep and awakened by the sound, even as others sleeping in the same bed or room heard nothing.
- Vibrations sometimes accompanied the sound. Victims told investigators these felt similar to the rapid flutter of air when windows of a car are partially rolled down.
- Those worst off knew right away something was affecting their bodies. Some developed visual symptoms within 24 hours, including trouble focusing on a computer screen.
Physicians are treating the symptoms like a new, never-seen-before illness. After extensive testing and trial therapies, they are developing the first protocols to screen cases and identify the best treatments.
Doctors still don’t know the long-term medical consequences and expect that epidemiologists, who track disease patterns in populations, will monitor the 24 Americans for life. Consultations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are underway.
According to Elisa Konofagou, a biomedical engineering professor at Columbia University who is not involved in the government’s investigation, acoustic waves never have been shown to alter the brain’s white matter tracts.”I would be very surprised. We never see white matter tract problems” even though ultrasound in the brain is used frequently in modern medicine.
Apparently unconnected with this AP report, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to a journalist’s question on this issue at a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on December 6. The Secretary said the following:
- “We are convinced these were targeted attacks. We have shared some information with the Cubans, and there are two restrictions I’ve placed on sharing information. One is respect for the privacy of individuals and their medical conditions, and the second is not to provide whoever was orchestrating these attacks with information that’s useful to how effective they were. What we’ve said to the Cubans is a small island, you got a sophisticated security apparatus, you probably know who’s doing it, you can stop it. It’s as simple as that. So that’s what we’ve asked the Cubans. We understand the Cubans don’t like the actions we’ve taken. We don’t like our diplomats being targeted.”
This medical report should at least eliminate Cuba’s recent assertion that the U.S. was lying about medical problems being experienced by some U.S. diplomats. The report also casts doubt on the notion that the cause was some kind of sonic attack. But the report leaves open the broader question of the cause and the perpetrator.
Secretary Tillerson’s comments are not very helpful. The reported U.S. physicians’ conclusion of observable brain abnormalities for at least some of the diplomats apparently was reached only recently and leaves other issues unresolved. Therefore, even if Cuba has a “sophisticated security apparatus,” it should not be surprising that Cuba has not uncovered a cause or a perpetrator.
 Assoc. Press, Doctors Identify Brain Abnormalities in Cuba Attack Patients, N.Y. Times (Dec. 6, 2017) Many previous posts to this blog have discussed the issues raised by the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats; they are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.
 U.S. State Dep’t, Press Conference at NATO, (Dec. 6, 2017); Harris, Tillerson Suggests Cuba Could Have Stopped ‘Targeted Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Dec. 6, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Tillerson says diplomatic people were ‘targeted,’ Wash. Post (Dec. 6, 2017).