For months, United States diplomats in Cuba have suffered an ongoing range of symptoms from a mysterious source, straining relations between the two governments. The latest diagnosis includes abnormalities to some of the diplomats’ white brain matter, which affects cognitive function, sensory and motor skills. However, this discovery only further divides scientists on the issue of what caused the patients’ symptoms.
Discovery of Damage to White Brain Matter
Since August 2016, American diplomats—and some Canadians—have experienced unusual health problems while stationed at the Cuban Embassy. The symptoms included nausea, dizziness, headaches, difficulty balancing, trouble concentration and recalling words, ringing in the ears, permanent hearing loss, and speech and vision problems. Patients have also been diagnosed with brain injuries such as swelling, concussion, and most recently damage to white brain matter.
US officials have confirmed these changes to white matter tracts in embassy workers’ brains. However, they would not say how many workers’ white brain matter have been affected out of the 24 total diplomats suffering from various symptoms.
White matter is a collection of nerve fibers that allows different parts of the brain to communicate, essential for learning and cognitive function. The light-colored myelin coating the fibers is responsible for white matter’s name. Damage to white matter is common after brain injuries.
Was White Matter Injury Related to Alleged Attacks?
Despite months of investigation, FBI investigators and US intelligence agencies still do not know the source of the health symptoms suffered by embassy diplomats in Cuba. At one point, the attacks were considered “sonic attacks” because there were numerous reports and speculation of both audible and inaudible sounds transmitted in and around the homes of the victims near the Cuban embassy. But many scientists now doubt those sounds could be responsible for this type of brain damage.
While shock waves from combat explosions have caused white matter damage in soldiers’ brains, none of the current victims have reported hearing explosions or blows to the head. Instead, the diplomats experienced a range of sound from vibrations to piercing noises, and other times sound waves out of the human hearing range.
More specifically, according to U.S. officials, the most common sound was a high-pitched chirp or grating metal sound. Less often, diplomats heard more low-pitched noises, similar to humming. While some people were awakened by the sound, others in the same room or bed never even heard the sounds. Sometimes the noises were accompanied by vibrations, similar to the quick flutter of air that occurs when car windows are rolled partially down.
US diplomats in Cuba also reported hearing sounds in parts of the room that were inaudible only a few feet away; this is not typical for normal sound, which disperses in all directions. Doctors now refer to this type of occurrence as a “directional acoustic phenomena.”
It’s difficult to prove how—or even if—the sounds experienced by the victims relate to the brain damage or other symptoms, without prior brains scans to compare. As a result, new protocols require any embassy workers who leave for Cuba to first submit to a battery of blood work and other medical tests to establish baselines for future comparison.
Elisa Konofagou, a biomedical engineering professor at Columbia University not involved in the government’s investigation, said there’s no evidence acoustic waves alter white matter tracts. “I would be very surprised,” Konofagou said. She explained how modern medicine frequently uses ultrasound to study the brain, adding that in such circumstances: “We never see white matter tract problems.”
Current Status of Diplomats’ Treatment
Nevertheless, the medical community continues to be baffled by the cause and the treatment of these clusters of symptoms, including the white matter damage. They have engaged in extensive testing and trial therapies and are working to develop the best possible treatments for these unidentified illnesses with unknown causes. While officials emphasize some of the total 24 patients are back at work, approximately one quarter had long-persistent symptoms, and some remain to the present day. Doctors are unclear on the long-term consequences for any of the patients and will track their health for life.
At the end of September 2017, US officials withdrew all their non-essential staff at the Cuban embassy for safety reasons. Then, in October the administration expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the US due to the controversy, citing Cuba’s failure to adequately protect US diplomats.
In early December, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in his report: “What we’ve said to the Cubans is: small island. You’ve got a sophisticated intelligence apparatus. You probably know who’s doing it. You can stop it. It’s as simple as that.”
US officials and doctors still refuse to discuss many details on the record. Tillerson mentioned a reluctance to release certain details because of patient privacy and to limit disclosure surrounding the effectiveness of the attacks. However, university and government doctors are working together to publish limited findings about the condition of the patients and the treatment protocols in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
But the journal article won’t address the cause of the injuries or who was behind them. Instead of referring to the cause as “sonic attacks,” the latest theory coming from three anonymous US officials is that those sounds may have been the result or byproduct of some initial cause of the actual damage, such as a faulty surveillance equipment.
Yet Cuba continues to deny any responsibility or knowledge about the diplomats’ symptoms and calls the Trump administration’s claims of any such attacks “deliberate lies.” Furthermore, Cuba denies there is any evidence to support claims that attacks took place at all. Moreover, Cuban experts claim that the US allegations of attacks are scientifically impossible.
Cuba’s Counter-Theories and US Response
The Cuban government is conducting its own investigations, which is working to curb damage to its economy and reputation because of the US political response. Based on these investigations, the Cuban government has produced television specials and an online summit to disseminate information among the public. A television special in October of 2017 claimed some of the symptoms from the alleged attacks were caused by cicadas and crickets.
“We compared the spectrums of the sounds and evidently this common sound is very similar to the sound of a cicada,” Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Molina, a Cuban government expert, said on the television broadcast Alleged Sonic Attacks. The television program also asserted significantly loud insect noises could “produce hearing loss, irritation and hypertension in situations of prolonged exposure.”
These assertions were based, in part, on a recording obtained from the US investigation. However, the US Navy’s acoustic technology is also investigating those recordings, and reports state that the signals contain more than 20 frequencies. That indicates the sounds are not coming from a single type of creature. Further debunking the unlikely cricket theory is the fact people standing right next to each other did not experience the same symptoms.
But Cubans have also organized a more extensive panel comprised of 20 physicians, neurologists, acoustic scientists, physicists, and psychologists to investigate the alleged attacks—who have arrived at different conclusions than those aired on the television programs.
A Cuban environmental physicist from the panel, Carlos Barcelo Pérez—created recordings around the diplomats’ homes. He discovered the loudest noise came from a Jamaican cricket field, producing chirps at a frequency matching the grating sound on the recordings, up to 74.6 decibels—not loud enough to damage hearing, he said.
No environmental sounds identified during Perez’s investigation near the house could inflict hearing loss. “To harm someone from outside a room, a sonic weapon would have to emit a sound above 130 decibels,” according to Manuel Jorge Villar Kuscevic, an ear, nose, and throat specialist who chaired the panel’s investigation. Kuscevic explained such a noise would compare to four jet engines on the street outside a person’s house.
A recent report from the Cuban government, which asserts the cricket theory, alternatively alleges the American’s symptoms could be a “collective psychogenic disorder.” Under this theory, a rapid spread of such symptoms among a connected group of people would have stemmed severe mental distress affecting the nervous system, without any other physical explanation. But a collective psychogenetic disorder is highly unlikely to have caused the type of brain damage recently discovered in some of the patients.
On the other hand, some US scientists agree with the possibility of the Cuban’s assessment of a psychological foundation. Stanley Fahn, a neurologist at Columbia University who has reviewed a summary of the Cuban report said that “it could certainly all be psychogenic.” He explains that he’s “curious to see the actual report of the MRI changes in the brain, and if they are uniform in all the afflicted individuals, and how they differ for non-afflicted individuals.”
Likewise, the Cuban panel continued to return to the idea of mass stress as the cause of the symptoms. They suggest the political climate at the time the first diplomats showed symptoms coincided with President Donald’s Trump’s election; Trump had promised to slow or reverse course from the previous progress in US-Cuban relations, setting the stage for a strain on US embassy workers.
Panelist and psychologist at Havana University Dionisio Zaldívar Pérez explains, “That kind of situation leads you to feel threatened.” Perez believes that by labeling the illnesses as “attacks,” the US government further increased anxiety among the diplomats. He adds that stress could escalate quickly in the “very closed community of English-speaking diplomats who have few connections with the Cuban population.”
“When I first heard about the attacks, it sounded like an X-Files episode,” Kuscevic said.
According to both governments investigating—even perhaps with different motives and goals in mind—neither have produced a cohesive, scientific theory about the diplomats’ strange symptoms. Of course, both the US and Cuban governments claim to be searching in earnest for the truth.
Panel member Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center said, “We started with the assumption that something happened—that this was not a pure fabrication.”
Despite all the ongoing questions and political posturing about medical mysteries surrounding the alleged attacks, including this latest discovery of white matter brain damage among the diplomats, Sosa’s initial hypothesis seems a safe bet.