American diplomats’ brains shrunk following an alleged sonic attack on the US Embassy in Cuba, according to a new study.
State-of-the-art imaging of staff members who suffered headaches, nausea and memory loss after hearing mysterious noises reveals “significant” structural changes, scientists have revealed.
Blame for the spate of unusual symptoms that afflicted diplomats at the Havana embassy between late 2016 and May 2018 has ranged from a deliberate attack using a mysterious sonic weapon to an abundance of crickets.
More than 20 American staff members complained of hearing penetrating noises in their homes or nearby hotels.
The real cause of the symptoms has not yet been established, although State Department officials have previously referred to a “sonic attack” and “directional phenomena”.
The illnesses prompted the US to more than halve its numbers at the mission in 2017.
Relations further soured after two Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington and Donald Trump said he held the Caribbean nation responsible.
Fourteen Canadian diplomats posted to Havana also reported symptoms, five of whom are suing their government for millions of dollars in compensation.
Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study took detailed images of the electrical functioning of 40 staff members and compared them to those of healthy participants who were matched for age and background.
Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania noticed the whole white matter volume – areas of the central nervous system that affects learning – of the diplomats was roughly five per cent smaller than usual.
Meanwhile the functional connectivity in the auditory network was down approximately 15 per cent.
Dr Douglas Smith, who took part in the analysis, likened the neurological effects on some of the patients as an “electricity brown-out”.
“These types of changes are completely unknown to us,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“We haven’t seen anything like it before and it’s very curious. What it is, we’re not sure, but there does appear to be something there.”
Dr Smith disclosed that while some of the patients have recovered, others still struggling with their symptoms.
The acoustic weapon theory gained further currency when an audio recording of a persistent, high-pitched drone sound was made by US personnel in Cuba and passed to the press in 2017.
But a fresh analysis published earlier this year suggested the din was the result of the Indies short-tailed cricket.
Prof Jon Stone, an NHS consultant neurologist and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said: “A whole range of conditions such as those causing chronic dizziness, migraine or even depression will tend to show changes in the brain in these types of studies in comparison to healthy controls, since all those conditions arise from the brain.
“The study supports the validity of the patients report of symptoms, but doesn’t answer the question of whether they have had a brain injury or not or whether the exposure they report is relevant.”
The Cuban government has consistently denied any involvement in the illnesses.
A spokesman for the State Department said: “The Department is aware of the study and welcomes the medical community’s discussion on this incredibly complex issue. The Department’s top priority remains the safety, security, and well-being of its staff.”