By Mary Carpenter
NEW REPORTS of what has been dubbed “Havana syndrome” are coming in from American embassies around the world—from “at least 200 CIA, State Department and Pentagon personnel stationed overseas,” according to the Harvard Gazette. But debate continues about the cause of complaints— odd clicking sounds inside the head followed by ringing in the ears, headaches, nausea, visual disturbances, sleep problems and memory loss. Two theories are taking center stage.
“The brain is being seen as the 21st-century battle scape,” Georgetown neurologist and Pentagon advisor James Giordano told the BBC. According to the first theory, Russian agents have employed “weaponized microwaves” to surveil or disrupt diplomatic communication, or to stress or create fear that might disable embassy personnel. Giordano noted that research is underway around the world to explore “ways to both augment and damage brain function.”
The alternate theory points to a “functional neurological disorder” (FND) —similar to what Freud called “conversion disorder” — that can occur when fear, anxiety and other stressors are expressed as physical symptoms. The “psychogenic” component of the diagnosis, however, indicates a role for psychological factors that are making sufferers worry that their complaints are not being taken seriously.
Recently, a “growing trail of evidence has focused on microwaves as the most likely culprit,” according to the BBC’s account. Also, a 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that directed, high-energy, pulsed microwaves were “most likely responsible for some of the cases.” In animal studies, brain tissue injuries at “nanoscale, subcellular levels” could explain symptoms in U.S. embassy personnel, as well as similar, persistent problems in those with traumatic brain injuries.
While health complaints from the Havana diplomats began in 2016 soon after the U.S. opened its embassy there, recent cases occurring in Serbia, India, Germany, Austria and Vietnam have made it possible to test sufferers quickly after symptoms appeared. “Some of the cases this year showed specific markers in the blood, indicating brain injury,” the BBC reported. “These markers fall away after a few days and [in earlier cases] too much time had elapsed to spot them.”
Traumatic brain injury is now the most common diagnosis, according to former CIA Senior Operations Officer Marc Polymeropoulos, speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School. During a trip to Moscow, Polymeropoulos woke up with his ears ringing and nausea, and has since received a diagnosis at Walter Reed of occipital neuralgia—chronic head pain that begins in the neck and spreads upwards. Earlier diplomatic cases received diagnoses of damage to vestibular organs in the inner ears.
Another believer in the microwave weapons theory, University of Illinois bioengineering expert James Lin has studied what is known as “microwave hearing.” When delivered in high-energy pulses—rather than the low-power continuous form used in microwave ovens—microwave energy can cause heat that is absorbed by soft brain tissue. The waves produce sounds inside the head—often compared to a chirping bird or a zipper—but no external noise.
In 2018, embassy personnel in Guangzhou, China, recorded high levels of radiation, according to Beatrice Golomb, who researches health effects of microwaves at UC San Diego. According to Golomb, independent studies have reported negative health effects from non-ionizing radiation, specifically that caused by pulsed microwaves. (Non-ionizing radiation from micro- and radio waves has always been thought too weak to cause cell damage—in contrast to the higher-frequency radiation used in diagnostic scans and intervention therapies.)
For a vulnerable subgroup of people, exposure to these lower-frequency waves can produce “negative, even life-threatening consequences,” says Golomb, making the comparison to those with peanut allergies.
In support of the alternate theory, a new book called The Sleeping Beauties, by Suzanne O’Sullivan, dismisses sonic weapons as well as clinical papers documenting brain injuries. Instead, O’Sullivan asserts that all disease is “biopsychosocial”—but the social component is often ignored, and “Havana syndrome was a powerful sociopolitical issue.”
The title’s sleeping beauties refer to “resignation syndrome,” the name for an epidemic among refugee children in Sweden who fell into coma-like states—which automatically qualified a family for asylum—with no evidence of brain disease; and symptoms often disappeared when asylum was granted. In the U.S., “cheerleaders’ disease,” in several groups of high school girls, included Tourette’s-like tics and movements.
“Functional disorders appear to hijack the normal neurological mechanisms by which we experience our body,” writes Dan Hurley in the New York Times. Reporting that “dozens of leading neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists agree that the diplomats’ symptoms are primarily psychogenic,” Hurley categorizes the confluence of neurological processes as damage to the brain’s software—with no evidence of effects on the hardware.
Symptoms of a functional disorder are inconsistent, varying even during the course of one examination, writes Hurley. In addition, while symptoms from physical injuries to the brain slowly subside over time, many of the diplomats’ symptoms remained steady or worsened over a period of months—long-term effects generally seen in psychogenic disorders.
Describing some forms of FND as disorders of perception, University of Edinburgh neurologist Jon Stone told Hurley that these are “giving us a window into how perceptions go wrong.” And a 2016 study on functional disorders co-authored by neurologist Mark Hallett, specialist in movement disorders at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, found “decreased functional connectivity from a region of the brain involved in self-agency—the perception of having control over your actions.” In another study of those with FND, Hallett found more gray matter in emotion-regulating parts of the brain and less in areas that control movement.
As reports of symptoms began coming in from around the world, the motive may have changed. According to the BBC report, “The mystery of Havana syndrome could be its real power. The ambiguity and fear it spreads [make it] harder for spies and diplomats to operate overseas.”
Renewed interest from the Biden administration should lead to better coordination of symptom reports as well as to more rapid, thorough testing of sufferers—leading to hope that better evidence will clarify the issues. At the same time, though, shining a spotlight on this condition could add to any psychological effects related to stress and fear.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical subjects in health and medicine.