Government Scientists Find No Brain Damage in “Havana Syndrome” Survivors

A pair of new studies out of the National Institutes of Health have found that government agents who claim to have suffered from the so-called "Havana syndrome" had no lasting brain damage.

In interviews with the New York Times and NPR about the new studies, published this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), scientists are saying that the findings seem to jibe with assertions from the intelligence community that whatever Havana syndrome may be, it wasn't the result of any kind of foreign attack.

Notably, the new studies weren't intended to find a cause for these "anomalous health incidents," as the medical researchers call them in their papers, but were instead looking if there is any evidence of lasting harm caused by the mysterious set of symptoms reported by spies and diplomats in China, Cuba — where the strange disorder gets its name — and Austria, among other locations.

Because those symptoms often appeared to be neurological or neurologically-related in nature, including ear-ringing, hearing loss, dizziness, vertigo or headaches, looking into the brains of people who suffered from it was a logical step. The only problem: when comparing the brain scans of Havana syndrome survivors to control groups, neither set of researchers found any substantial differences.

"We didn't see differences in the structure of the brain or even in the functional connectivity of the brain," Dr. Leighton Chan, the acting chief scientific officer of the NIH Clinical Center, told NPR.

Despite those findings, however, neither of the studies seek to minimize what their subjects have experienced — or rules out that something external may have caused their symptoms.

"It is important to note that individuals with functional neurological disorders of any cause have symptoms that are real, distressing and very difficult to treat," Chan told the NYT.

Sensational potential explanations for the mysterious illness have included sonic weapons or energy attacks, but as the researcher told the NYT, identifying some other source of neurological problems in the Havana syndrome cohort "may explain more of our findings."

While these studies are a compelling update to the Havana syndrome quagmire, they're not without their critics.

In a separate editorial that was also published by JAMA, Stanford medicine and immunology professor David Relman said that his own review of the data suggests that some of them could have been victim to some sort of "directed pulsed radio frequency energy" attack.

Relman, who has worked with Havana syndrome sufferers and took part in a 2020 assessment of their cases as part of a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, claims in his dissent that the brain imaging instruments used in the studies might not have been sensitive enough to capture "the kinds of potentially transient cellular and local physiological disruption" peculiar to the cohort.

Nothing about Havana syndrome has ever been straightforward — and with these new studies and a qualified dissent against them, it doesn't seem like the public or the people who suffer from it will learn anything conclusive anytime soon.

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