Medicine

NIH: Havana Syndrome Still a Mystery

This post originally appeared on Medical News Bulletin.

“It was like a high-pitched, metallic drilling noise. . .it knocked me forward,” said FBI agent, “Carrie,” as she described what she believed to be the impetus behind her illness—a strange condition colloquially referred to as “Havana Syndrome.”1

First reported by US embassy employees in Havana, Cuba in 2016 (and possibly earlier in Germany), Havana syndrome is associated with headaches, dizziness, fatigue, impaired vision, and memory problems. Since then, the phenomenon has been noted by various US security officials and diplomats as well as their families.2

New NIH Findings: No Evidence of Injury

On Monday, March 18, 2024, the National Institute of Health (NIH) announced the results of their 5-year study of more than 80 US government personnel suffering from Havana syndrome, also known as anomalous health incidents (AHIs).3

When compared against healthy controls, the researchers found no evidence of structural brain changes or biological differences for individuals presenting with AHIs. Researchers did acknowledge that the symptoms do cause real and significant disruption to the lives of those affected by the condition. 3

That disruption was further highlighted from the self-reported measures in the study. Compared to the healthy controls, participants with AHIs reported significantly increased symptoms of fatigue, post-traumatic stress, and depression. According to the NIH, “Almost half of those from the AHI group met the criteria for functional neurological disorders (FNDs) —a group of common neurological movement disorders caused by an abnormality in how the brain functions or had significant somatic symptoms.”3

“A lack of evidence for an MRI-detectable difference between individuals with AHIs and controls does not exclude that an adverse event impacting the brain occurred at the time of the AHI,” said Carlo Pierpaoli, a senior investigator at the NIH.3
With no detectable brain changes yet severely felt symptoms, the reason behind this mysterious phenomenon remains elusive. 

Well, the plot thickens. . .

Cross-Continent Conspiracies?

A joint investigation by 60 Minutes (an American program on CBS), The Insider (an online newspaper run by a Russian journalist and focusing on Russia), and Der Spiegel (a German news magazine) claims that the AHIs are caused by Russian-operated “high-energy beams” directed against American personnel.1

This is not a new topic at all; for many years the topic of the so-called Havana Syndrome has been exaggerated in the press, and from the very beginning it was linked to accusations against the Russian side. . .no one has ever published or expressed any convincing evidence of these unfounded accusations.Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin Spokesperson

The investigation cites Dr. David Relman, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Stanford University, who said the symptoms could be the result of “a focused beam of microwaves or acoustic ultrasound.”3 While Relman is Co-Director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University, it should be noted that his expertise in infectious diseases and microbiome. He has not published any research or clinical case study that would indicate he has specialist experience in neurology, brain injury, acoustic tecnology or non-biological weapons.

Bizarrely, the investigation alleges Russia, particularly a specific Russian intelligence unit, 29155, of using “an acoustic energy weapon” as “part of a worldwide campaign to neutralize US officials.”2

Deep-State Denials

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, has denied the allegations, stating, “This is not a new topic at all; for many years the topic of the so-called Havana Syndrome has been exaggerated in the press, and from the very beginning it was linked to accusations against the Russian side. . .no one has ever published or expressed any convincing evidence of these unfounded accusations. ”4

Although the US has passed the Havana Act (2021) allowing the State Department, CIA, or other relevant US agencies to provide compensation to those affected by the syndrome, US intelligence agencies have publicly stated that “it’s very unlikely a foreign adversary is responsible.”2,4

The Government of Canada describes “directed energy weapons” as those using “concentrated energy from electromagnetic or particle technology, rather than kinetic energy, to degrade or destroy targets” with the “capability to damage physical targets over several kilometres with high precision and accuracy.”5

But although these weapons exist, at least seven US intelligence agencies have concluded there was “no credible evidence” of such a device causing the reported symptoms. They assert that the most likely causes are “pre-existing conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors.”6

Somatic Symptoms?

This wouldn’t be the first time those factors were the culprits in a seemingly unexplained illness. As this article from Scientific American states, we’ve seen this before: “railway spine” in Great Britain, “telephone sickness” in Germany and “repetition strain” Australia. 7

Fun fact: US intelligence apparently left no stone unturned, even considering the involvement of extraterrestrials! 6

Espionage? Psychology? Some really specific, weird, and unknown biological agent? We may just have to wait and see how this plays out—but let’s try and keep our focus on the science and not the (admittedly fascinating) spectacle! 

References:

1 Pelley S. Havana Syndrome mystery continues as a lead military investigator says bar for proof was set impossibly high—CBS News. Published March 31, 2024. Accessed April 14, 2024. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/havana-syndrome-culprit-investigation-new-evidence-60-minutes-transcript/

2 Croxton W. 5-year Havana Syndrome investigation finds new evidence of who might be responsible—CBS News. Published March 31, 2024. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/5-year-havana-syndrome-investigation-finds-new-evidence-of-who-might-be-responsible-60-minutes/

3 NIH studies find severe symptoms of “Havana Syndrome,” but no evidence of MRI-detectable brain injury or biological abnormalities. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Published March 18, 2024. Accessed April 14, 2024. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-studies-find-severe-symptoms-havana-syndrome-no-evidence-mri-detectable-brain-injury-or-biological-abnormalities

4 Kremlin dismisses report Russia behind “Havana Syndrome.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/kremlin-dismisses-report-russia-behind-havana-syndrome-2024-04-01/. Published April 1, 2024. Accessed April 15, 2024.

5 Directed energy weapons. Published February 12, 2024. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://science.gc.ca/site/science/en/safeguarding-your-research/guidelines-and-tools-implement-research-security/emerging-technology-trend-cards/directed-energy-weapons

6 Landay J. “Havana syndrome” not caused by foreign adversary, US intel finds. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/us/havana-syndrome-not-caused-by-foreign-adversary-us-intel-finds-2023-03-01/.Published March 1, 2023. Accessed April 15, 2024.

7 Bartholomew R. A “Havana Syndrome” Investigation in Congress Rests on Politics, Not Science. Scientific American. Accessed April 14, 2024. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-havana-syndrome-investigation-in-congress-rests-on-politics-not-science/

This post originally appeared on Medical News Bulletin.