Mysterious symptoms: No detectable brain damage after Havana syndrome

Researchers have found virtually no long-term physical changes in US diplomats with the so-called Havana syndrome.

Mysterious symptoms: No detectable brain damage after Havana syndrome

Researchers have found virtually no long-term physical changes in US diplomats with the so-called Havana syndrome. This emerges from two parallel studies published in the journal “Jama”. The scientists examined dozens of those affected intensively and also examined them for brain damage.

Havana syndrome is a group of puzzling symptoms such as headaches, hearing loss, dizziness and nausea, which numerous US diplomats and their relatives living in the Cuban capital Havana complained about from 2016 onwards. Similar complaints were later reported in other places around the world. Those affected said that the symptoms began after they heard a strange noise or felt strong pressure in their head.

The US government initially suspected an attack

The US government initially did not rule out the possibility that this could be some kind of attack. About a year ago, according to an official report, the majority of US intelligence agencies assumed that no "foreign enemy" was responsible for the so-called Havana Syndrome. Instead, the reported complaints are probably the result of previous illnesses, other illnesses or environmental factors.

A team of researchers led by Leighton Chan from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), based in Bethesda, Maryland, analyzed 86 patients with Havana syndrome - government employees and their adult family members - over several years. The examinations usually took place a few weeks to months after the onset of symptoms.

Result: No significant differences

Chan and his team subjected those affected to hearing, vision and balance tests, among other things. They also carried out blood analyzes and asked the participants about, among other things, exhaustion, depression and dizziness. The data was then compared with that of a comparison group.

The result: "There were no significant differences on most scores, except for objective and self-reported measures of balance and symptoms of fatigue, post-traumatic stress and depression," the scientists wrote. Still, it is important to recognize that the symptoms are real and significantly impact the lives of those affected, Chan said, according to a statement.

Those affected examined in an MRI

In the second study, a group led by Carlo Pierpaoli from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering describes findings from brain examinations using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They compared the brain scans of those affected by Havana syndrome with those of a control group. Pierpaoli's team found "no significant differences in imaging measurements of brain structure or function."

But this does not rule out the possibility that “a harmful event affecting the brain” could have occurred at the time of symptoms, Pierpaoli said, according to a statement. It is conceivable that such an event did not cause any long-term changes in the brain scans.

"In some ways, the absence of change should be reassuring to people," said NIH study scientist Louis French of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at a news conference. "It allows us to focus on the here and now - on getting patients back to where they should be."

NEXT NEWS