No Trace of Physical Harm Found in Havana Syndrome Patients: Report

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There is no evidence of brain injuries or diseases in people suffering from the mysterious cluster of symptoms known as Havana Syndrome, two government studies have found.

Advanced imaging techniques and in-depth clinical assessments revealed no significant signs of detectable brain injuries or differences in clinical measures when compared to those without Havana Syndrome symptoms, a report funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in JAMA Network noted.

Those suffering from the condition report experiencing auditory phenomena such as hearing noises, as well as head pressure, followed by headaches, dizziness, cognitive impairment, and other symptoms.

The term “Havana Syndrome” was coined by news media outlets, as the symptoms were first reported in 2016 by U.S. government personnel stationed in Havana, Cuba.

The condition was initially observed when those affected reported hearing strange sounds near Hotel Capri and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. These initial occurrences led government officials to suspect that a “sonic device” was being used by a foreign actor in an attack against American officials. However, the U.S. government eventually dismissed the idea that the symptoms were caused by an attack.

Severe Symptoms Exist, Brain Damage Doesn’t

Although the studies found no significant differences in brain functionality between those with Havana Syndrome and healthy individuals, the research team at the NIH Clinical Center emphasized that people afflicted with this condition are experiencing genuine symptoms.

“While we did not identify significant differences in participants with AHIs, it’s important to acknowledge that these symptoms are very real, cause significant disruption in the lives of those affected and can be quite prolonged, disabling and difficult to treat,” Dr. Leighton Chan, the lead author of one of the research papers and acting chief scientific officer at the NIH Clinical Center, said in a press release.

The Evidence

The government conducted two studies involving 80 government employees and their family members who experienced “anomalous health incidents” (AHIs) while stationed in countries like Cuba, China, Austria, and the U.S.

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Many of them reported symptoms such as hearing odd sounds or experiencing changes in pressure before developing vertigo, loss of balance, and ear pain. The study participants underwent a myriad of clinical tests, including auditory, balance, visual, neuropsychological, and blood biomarker assessments. Additionally, they received different types of MRI scans that examined the volume, structure, and function of their brains.

While the studies and MRI scans showed no differences between people who suffered from Havana Syndrome and those who did not, the results indicated that the affected group experienced significantly higher levels of fatigue, post-traumatic stress, and depression.

Notably, 41 percent of the participants in the group who experienced anomalous AHIs with Havana Syndrome met the criteria for functional neurological disorders. Functional neurological disorders are a common category of neurological movement disorders caused by some abnormality in brain function. These disorders are often associated with depression, anxiety, and high stress levels.

The Conclusions

The post-traumatic stress and mood symptoms reported are not surprising, given the ongoing concerns of many participants, according to Louis French, neuropsychologist, the deputy director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a co-investigator on the study.

“Often these individuals have had significant disruption to their lives and continue to have concerns about their health and their future. This level of stress can have significant negative impacts on the recovery process,” she said in a press release.

If an external event caused the Havana Syndrome symptoms, there was very little evidence to support the existence of such an event, the research team noted. However, they could not rule out this possibility entirely.

“It is possible that individuals with an AHI may be experiencing the results of an event that led to their symptoms, but the injury did not produce the long-term neuroimaging changes that are typically observed after severe trauma or stroke,” according to Dr. Carlo Pierpaoli, senior investigator and chief of the Laboratory on Quantitative Medical Imaging at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

“We hope these results will alleviate concerns about AHI being associated with severe neurodegenerative changes in the brain.”

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