Scientists are skeptical that "Havana syndrome" is anything more than a psychogenic illness

Reports of a so-called "sonic weapon" causing illness in diplomats has little physical basis, say doctors

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 21, 2021 7:01PM (EDT)

3D render of a man with strong pain in head (Getty Images/
3D render of a man with strong pain in head (Getty Images/

Back in 2016, American and Canadian embassy staff working from the Cuban capital reported that they were feeling ill. The symptoms — dizziness, fatigue, tinnitus, headaches, and various forms of cognitive impairment — were puzzling. At the time, American officials pinned the blame on some kind of "sonic weapon," claims that the media repeated unquestioningly.

For instance: "Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers," the New York Times headline blared.

The bizarre, seemingly sci-fi assertion spurred a "diplomatic rupture" between the Cuban government and Washington, the Times noted — though if there was a culprit, their identity was never clear.

Since then "Havana syndrome," as it is now known, has been documented over 200 times in American public officials and diplomats around the world, with reports of it spanning from China and Vietnam to Russia and Austria. As the complainants are mainly American government workers, the implication that the sickness may be indicative of some kind of attack makes these claims politically sensitive.

Politicians have leapt to address the seemingly serious "syndrome." Congress even passed a bill to set aside money to help victims of the malady.

The problem? Scientists are not only unsure what it is, but many doubt that it is a physical ailment at all. And some say that dastardly "microwave weapons" defy the laws of physics.

Initially the medical establishment appeared to concur with the government's assessment of Havana syndrome. Indeed, the idea that so-called Havana syndrome caused brain damage gained prominence after the publication of a pair of studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2018 and 2019. As one of the top medical journals in the world, its claims are reflexively taken seriously.

But those studies have faced increasing scrutiny, and many scientists and doctors believe they should never have been published.

"JAMA is one of the top medical journals in the world, but it is edited by human beings, and humans make mistakes," medical sociologist Dr. Robert Bartholomew told Salon. "These two studies have serious methodological flaws and should have never been published."

"Many of my colleagues share this view," the University of Auckland professor added.

Scientists like Bartholomew felt that the cases of Havana syndrome were also being misreported, with credence being lent to research that was tenuous at best. In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this week, Stanford microbiologist Dr. David Relman — who led the National Academic of Sciences' investigation into the condition, with direction from he U.S. State Department — confirmed that, at the very least, scientists must acknowledge we know very little for sure about this condition.

"There's still a lot of missing information and lack of molecular understanding of how this might occur," Relman explained. He noted that reports from open source literature and studies of small animals and cells exposed to microwave radiation circumstantially suggests that microwave radiation could theoretically "reverberate and cause damage to cells and pathways where normal neurotransmitters are communicating." Yet even he acknowledged that there is no direct evidence of this, admitting that they are "not confident" about microwaves being behind the condition.

"I have to be clear," Relman emphasized. "We view this as plausible, but, again, we didn't have any direct evidence that this could explain the entire story for sure or even parts of it."

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As Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa of the Cuban Neuroscience Center wrote to Salon, there may not be a "Havana syndrome story" in the first place. All that scientists know for sure is that there were Unidentified Health Incidents (UHI) about which information has been tightly controlled, despite some shady leaks fueling wild speculation.

"Calling these UHI 'Havana Syndrome' is a misnomer," Valdes-Sosa explained, noting that the World Health Organization discourages using geographic labels for diseases (which is why COVID-19 is not known as "Chinese flu" or "Wuhan flu") and the alleged cases have been distributed all over the world. As such, it may not be a new syndrome at all. Certainly describing it as "Havana syndrome" and attributing it to a mysterious weapons attack (directly or by implication) is politically charged, Valdes-Sosa says.

"The 'Havana syndrome' label has been used maliciously by people in the US Congress who have an anti-Cuba bias," Valdes-Sosa pointed out.

Dr. Sergio Della Sala, a professor of human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, told Salon that he has serious doubts any kind of "syndrome" actually exists, at least based on the 2018 paper published in JAMA.

"Those data do not support the existence of a new syndrome, as the cluster of the reported symptoms are not consistent and as anyone assessed using the criteria used in the JAMA papers would result pathological," Della Sala pointed out. "It is a statistical fact."

He emphasized that this does not mean people are being untruthful when they claim to be sick. It merely indicates that the naming of a syndrome should be based on thorough scientific evidence.

"This does not undermine the fact that several people felt unwell," Della Sala explained. "However, before postulating questionable new syndromes, it may prove fruitful to analyze the data for what they tell us, exempt from political prejudices and pressure."

Dr. Robert Baloh, a professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said the idea that a sonic weapon caused selective brain or inner ear damage "is not physically possible." Though the microwave weapon theory is speculative, "8 of the 21 initial 'victims' in Cuba actually recorded the sounds as they were occurring and expert analysis of the sound concluded that they were crickets. The simple fact that they were able to record the sounds rules out microwaves as the source," Baloh says.

Likewise, one of the supposed victims recorded audio and video during the incident, recordings which prove that electronic devices remained functional.

Baloh stresses that this does not rule out mass deception.

"The symptoms of mass psychogenic illness are real . . .  due to changes in brain connections and chemistry, [they] can occur in anyone and are not a sign of weakness or malingering," Baloh explained."Malingering" is a medical term for feigning an illness, while mass psychogenic illness refers to when a mass illness breaks out without a physical cause. Historical examples of mass psychogenic illnesses include the "dancing syndromes" of the Middle Ages, and contemporary accounts of teenage girls developing facial tics after watching too many videos of persons with Tourette's Syndrome on TikTok. 

Baloh notes that in writing the book on Havana syndrome that he co-authored with Bartholomew, the two of them found many well-documented historical cases of mass psychogenic illness dating back centuries.

"Possibly the largest outbreak of mass psychogenic illness in the history of the world was 'shell shock' during World War I," Baloh told Salon. "Although some of the initial cases were exposed to blasts with associated brain injury, the vast majority developed symptoms on a psychological basis due to the stress of war." He also recalled how many telephone operators at the turn of the 20th century (when the inventions were still new) reported a psychogenic illness called "acoustic shock."

If indeed Havana syndrome is psychogenic, its exaggeration by US politicians could affect the integrity of US–Cuba relations. As Bartholomew noted, when you have the State Department and Defense Secretary warning diplomats, intelligence officers and service members to report "anomalous health incidents," you create an incentive to further a possible psychogenic illness.

"Now I would expect the floodgates to open with US government employees redefining an array of ambiguous symptoms that they would ordinarily have experienced anyway, under a new label — 'Havana Syndrome,'" Bartholomew explained. "This secondary outbreak isn't necessarily mass psychogenic illness, but it involves mass suggestion. When you add in the potential for compensation, I would not be surprised to see tens of thousands of personnel filing reports."

Salon reached out to the corresponding authors from both JAMA articles for comment. As of writing, they have not replied. A spokesperson for JAMA did not respond to a question by Salon about its thoughts on the criticisms of the articles.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Cuba Deep Dive Havana Syndrome Mass Delusions Psychogenic Illnesses Psychology Science