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What Is Havana Syndrome? Causes, Symptoms And Treatments

Recently, United States Vice-President Kamala Harris' flight from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed for several hours amid alarm over a mysterious syndrome known as "Havana syndrome".

Havana syndrome is recognised as a mysterious illness reported first in 2016 by diplomats from the United States embassy in Havana (Cuba). A range of 'psychogenic symptoms' such as headache, memory loss, sensitivity to sound, eye movement dysfunction, ear pain, tinnitus and brain abnormalities were reported, without any previous history of head trauma or brain injury.

Later in 2017 and mid-2018, a number of American diplomats in Cuba and China reported the same symptoms and similar sounds, making the physicians and medical experts suspect that the incident is a so-called acoustic attack initiated by a sonic device.

So, what is Havana syndrome and what is the exact cause of the condition? In this article, we will discuss the illness in detail. Take a look.

Symptoms Of Havana Syndrome

Here is the list of 'medically confirmed symptoms experienced by patients reporting Havana syndrome: [1]

  • Hearing a sudden loud noise accompanied by pain in one or both ears. [1]
  • Feeling pressure or vibrations in the head.
  • Inner ear vestibular damage
  • Tinnitus
  • Visual problems like sensitivity to light, but no signs of visual impairment in the test.
  • Vertigo
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Persistent dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Brain fog
  • Trouble walking
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Brain abnormalities

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Cause Of Havana Syndrome

A study published in the journal Lancet has shown that Havana syndrome might be the result of energy pulses. This is because most of the symptoms felt by the US embassy staff are consistent with pulsed radiofrequency energy. [2]

According to the study, between late 2016 and May 2018, many American diplomats who were residing in Cuba and China felt sudden unusual clinical symptoms as aforementioned. Scientists and researchers have given out many hypotheses and mechanisms behind the onset of such symptoms, and even though those studies were not proven, some kind of sonic device was suspected.

This made the US government ask for expert guidance and provide a committee to investigate the matter.

The study also mentions that most of the individuals first experience the aforementioned symptoms in the middle of the night and felt that the sound was coming from a particular direction and from a window. When these people left their bedroom, they felt good, but problems with memory were still there in the morning.

A study published in the journal JAMA Network says that when these individuals were diagnosed, it was found that they have sustained injury widespread in the brain networks without any history of head injury or trauma. [3]

Another study conducted by the same scientists later in the year has shown that when the neuroimaging tests of the affected individuals were evaluated, it was found that they have variations in their brains, compared to healthy individuals. [4]

The affected US personnel in Havana have differences in the whole brain white matter volume, cerebellar tissue microstructural integrity, regional grey and white matter volumes and functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks but not in the executive control subnetwork.

These two papers have voiced concerns as only the US diplomats were found to have been potentially exposed to directional phenomena while working in Havana, and not 'everybody is affected'.

Is Havana Syndrome An Outbreak Of Psychogenic Illness?

According to a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the symptoms of Havana syndrome stand out as "concussion-like symptoms", considering that these symptoms are regularly encountered by neurologists and general psychologists in their everyday practices.

A psychogenic illness refers to a condition characterised by physical illnesses that are believed to arise from emotional and mental stress, or due to psychiatric and psychological factors. In short, the condition is believed to spread due to delusion and not due to actual infectious agents for contagion. [1]

Since the Civil war, American medical experts have noticed a range of unexplained symptoms with no organic cause in soldiers who were exposed to the war. Over the past century, there have been growing complaints of neurological symptoms such as overstimulated nervous systems with no previous cause.

The recent Havana syndrome was found to be relevant with psychogenic illness as the diplomats who became affected were actually the participants of the Cold War, living in Cuba under constant surveillance.

Therefore, there could be a possibility of war trauma along with fear and stress of living in the uncertainty of their lives in another country, which may have triggered these psychogenic symptoms.

Treatments Of Havana Syndrome

There is no specific treatment method available yet for patients with Havana syndrome. However, some intensive therapy programs like neurological exercises, cognitive exercises, brain-training exercises and neuromuscular reeducation exercises could be effective in reducing the symptoms and improving balance and cognitive functions in patients. [5]

To Conclude

The Havana syndrome is still under investigation as it is certainly unclear how the noise is related to the symptoms aforementioned and why only the US diplomats are exposed to directional audible and sensory phenomena.