What happened to US diplomats in Cuba?

play_circle Science Weekly [Podcast; 27 mins]

Ian Sample delves into a preliminary study of US embassy staff said to have been targeted by an energy source in Cuba. With no unifying explanation, what do scientists think happened?


In a story seemingly straight out of the X-Files, US embassy staff based in Cuba started to get sick at the same time and nobody knew what was causing it.

In August 2017 reports of the incident started hitting the web, with 16 embassy staff described as suffering from a variety of symptoms including loss of hearing, headaches and nausea.

Almost immediately the possibility that is was a “sonic attack” was bandied about, with the AP even posting the alleged sound from a tape they received.

In October, The Times spoke to some experts in acoustics who suggested the sonic weapon theory was “more appropriate to a James Bond movie”.

Stranger still, in December, doctors who were treating the US Embassy staff discovered abnormalities in the white matter of the victim’s brains. From The Associated Press:

Loud, mysterious sounds followed by hearing loss and ear-ringing had led investigators to suspect “sonic attacks.” But officials are now carefully avoiding that term. The sounds may have been the byproduct of something else that caused damage, said three US officials briefed on the investigation. They weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly and demanded anonymity.

Physicians, FBI investigators and US intelligence agencies have spent months trying to piece together the puzzle in Havana, where the US says 24 US government officials and spouses fell ill starting last year in homes and later in some hotels.

Doctors still don’t know how victims ended up with the white matter changes, nor how exactly those changes might relate to their symptoms. US officials wouldn’t say whether the changes were found in all 24 patients.

But acoustic waves have never been shown to alter the brain’s white matter tracts, said Elisa Konofagou, a biomedical engineering professor at Columbia University who is not involved in the government’s investigation.

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