LAC Digest 5 Review

RANDEL L. SWANSON II, STEPHEN HAMPTON, JUDITH GREEN-MCKENZIE, ET AL. “Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online February 15, 2018.


From late 2016 through August 2017, US government personnel working on the US embassy in Havana, Cuba, reported neurological symptoms associated with exposure to auditory and sensory phenomena. The episode triggered a major change in the US politics to Cuba, a relationship that had reached an important point in 2016 when former President Obama travelled to Cuba and became the first incumbent US President to visit the island in 88 years. Following what has been called by the media “the sonic attacks,” the Trump administration decided to call back most of its personnel serving as diplomats in Havana and announced a series of actions in response to this incidents, whose existence the Cuban government refuses to acknowledge. After exposure to auditory and sensory phenomena in their homes or hotel rooms, the affected individuals “reported a similar constellation of neurological symptoms resembling brain injury” and “were referred to an academic brain injury center for multidisciplinary evaluation and treatment.” This study concludes that “persistent cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor dysfunction, as well as sleep impairment and headaches, were observed among US government personnel in Havana, Cuba, associated with reports of directional audible and/or sensory phenomena of unclear origin,” and that “these individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” Being the first comprehensive scientific study on those incidents, it will be of importance not only for health sciences scholars but also for those working on Foreign Service, Hemispheric and International Studies, Cuban Studies, US international policy, and the US-Cuba diplomatic sphere.

In lieu of an abstract, some excerpts: “There were 21 individuals evaluated (11 women and 10 men, with a mean age of 43 years). Multidisciplinary evaluations began an average of 203 days (range, 3-331 days; median, 189 days; interquartile range, 125 days) following exposure. […] For 18 of the 21 individuals (86%), there were reports of hearing a novel, localized sound at the onset of symptoms in their homes and hotel rooms […] Affected individuals described the sounds as directional, intensely loud, and with pure and sustained tonality. Of the patients, high-pitched sound was reported by 16 (76%), although 2 (10%) noted a low-pitched sound. Words used to describe the sound include ‘buzzing,’ ‘grinding metal,’ ‘piercing squeals,’ and ‘humming.’ 

Keywords: US diplomatic service; Havana; auditory and sensory phenomena; brain injury; sonic attacks. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2018.1742