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Should Anyone Care if the Havana Syndrome is Real?

JAMA research suggests that the so-called Havana Syndrome does not impact the brain. Is that really true? Get another side of the story.

Before you read another word, I have a confession to make. I am not an objective bystander to the Havana Syndrome story. Therefore, you cannot rely on what you will read to be an overview from an impartial bystander. More about that shortly. If this all sounds a bit mysterious, it refers to an NIH biomarker study, an NIH neuroimaging study and an editorial, all published in JAMA (March 18, 2024). The findings have been widely reported to mean that the Havana syndrome doesn’t really exist: no brain damage and no evidence of physical harm. That may not be the whole story, however.

What Is the Havana Syndrome?

David A. Relman, MD, is a heavy hitter in medicine. He is a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Relman is an infectious disease expert and a member of the Intelligence Community Studies Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. You can read his bio here and his Wikipedia profile here.

Dr. Relman wrote the editorial in JAMA that accompanies the NIH initiated studies.  The researchers are calling the Havana Syndrome “anomalous health incidents” or AHIs. I liken this wordplay to changing the name of UFOs (unidentified flying objects) to UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena). The feds love the word anomalous.

Professor Relman was involved in “Two detailed investigations of AHIs.” That makes him highly qualified to comment on the latest research.

He starts his editorial this way:

“In 2016, a set of troubling neurological symptoms was reported through confidential channels by US government personnel based at the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba. As the number of cases in Havana escalated and then similar cases occurred over the next 5 years in other locations around the globe, efforts to understand this syndrome, now known as anomalous health incidents (AHIs), were hampered by their unusual features, incomplete information, nonstandardized clinical testing, delayed reporting, and the sensitive nature of the circumstances, individuals, and their work.”

Dr. Relman goes on to describe the sudden onset of symptoms reported by some of the people affected. They included an abrupt onset of noise inside the head; clicking, buzzing or screeching. Some people also reported a sensation of pressure in one ear or on one side of the face.

In his editorial Dr. Relman notes:

“Most strikingly, these phenomena often displayed strong location dependence, in that they quickly dissipated when the individuals vacated their initial location, and then returned when the location was revisited. In some cases, this location dependence was reported to occur repeatedly by the same individual or by multiple individuals as they moved away from and then returned within minutes to a specific location, such as part of a room. These abrupt-onset sensory phenomena were followed by a mix of vertigo, dizziness, imbalance, blurry vision, tinnitus, headache, nausea, and cognitive dysfunction, sometimes leading to chronic disability.”

Where Did People Report AHIs (Symptoms of Havana Syndrome)?

There were 86 participants with AHIs (anomalous health incidents) in the NIH study. But hundreds of reports have been recorded over the last eight years. They have included employees of the U.S. and Canadian governments. Countries where this has happened include Cuba, China, Russia, Poland, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, India and Austria.

Many of the people affected have been diplomats or embassy personnel. Family members have also been impacted.

What Did the NIH Investigators Discover About the Havana Syndrome?

The two studies in JAMA concluded that:

Brain Scan Study:

“In this exploratory neuroimaging study, there was no significant MRI-detectable evidence of brain injury among the group of participants who experienced AHIs compared with a group of matched control participants.”

Biomarker Study:

“In this exploratory study, there were no significant differences between individuals reporting AHIs and matched control participants with respect to most clinical, research, and biomarker measures, except for objective and self-reported measures of imbalance and symptoms of fatigue, posttraumatic stress, and depression.”

How the Research Has Been Reported:

Here are some headlines

“New Study Finds No Brain Injuries Among ‘Havana Syndrome’ Patients” PBS NewsHour

“The Most Extensive Study Yet of ‘Havana Syndrome’ Turns Up…Nada?” Medscape

“New Studies Find No Evidence of Brain Injury in Havana Syndrome Cases” New York Times

NIH Probe of ‘Havana Syndrome’ Finds No Sign of Brain Injuries” Washington Post

The message to the American public is clearly: nothing here. Do not worry.

But if the reporters had bothered to dig into the study they would also have read:

“The absence of a consistent set of abnormalities among any group in the AHI cohort suggests several things. First, if a directed energy ‘attack’ is truly involved, it seems to create symptoms without persistent or detectable physiologic changes. A lack of evidence for a brain injury does not necessarily mean that no injury is present or that it did not occur at the time of the AHI. It is also possible that those with AHIs may be experiencing the results of an injury that led to PPPD [persistent postural-perceptual dizziness] and other symptoms but is no longer detectable. Alternatively, the ‘attack’s’ physiological effects might be so varied and idiosyncratic that they cannot be identified with the current methodologies and sample size.”

Dr. Relman’s Editorial on AHIs (Anomalous Health Incidents):

In his editorial that accompanied the two new studies, Dr. Relman points out that:

“These findings differ from previous clinical and imaging studies of smaller numbers of cases from Havana and China that found evidence of vestibular, oculomotor, and pupillary abnormalities and a variety of MRI findings.”

Dr. Relman goes on to note that clinicians lack sensitive tools to detect brain function “at the level of molecules, cells, and pathways.” In other words, the researchers lack methods for measuring what is truly going on at the cellular level inside the brains of patients exposed to some sort of external energy source.

Another important point made by Dr. Relman has to do with the possible nature of energy attacks.

He states that there is a:

“…relative lack of detailed information about the biological effects of electromagnetic and acoustic energy on the brain…”

The deputy director of the CIA and the director of national intelligence brought together a panel of experts in 2021 to analyze pulsed radiofrequency energy and focused ultrasound. They reviewed over 1000 classified documents. Dr. Relman was co-chair of the panel.

The panel concluded that beamed external energy sources could be “…plausible explanations for some cases” of AHIs.

Why I Am So Concerned About the Havana Syndrome Situation:

I have tried to be reasonably objective in reporting the research in JAMA and the editorial by Dr. Arnold Relman. You might wonder why I am concerned about this topic.

Please climb into my time machine while I transport you back to the laboratory I worked in during the late 1960s. At that time I was involved in quantitative electroencephalography (EEG) research in the neuropharmacology laboratory at the New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute near Princeton, NJ. We were studying the impact of free-radical compounds on the brains of rats and rabbits (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1969). Some of this research was funded by the Navy.

Here were our conclusions from that study:

“Intravenous administration of the free-radical proteins or peptides into rabbits equipped with chronic cranial electrodes and sedated with a small dose of pentobarbital caused a sudden EEG arousal accompanied by behavioral changes indicative of brain excitation. Illumination of the free-radical compounds prior to administration enhanced the effects. Untreated control proteins or peptides had no effects. The observations are interpreted to suggest the involvement of free-radical structures in the transfer of energy in nervous tissue.”

“It would appear then that the possibility of converting naturally occurring molecules to a free-radical state offers a new approach to the molecular modification of brain function with some practical pharmacological implications and, in addition, affords a lever to the biochemistry of energy transfer mechanisms in living systems.”

The Havana Syndrome and EMF:

What does free radical research have to do with the Havana Syndrome? At about the same time we were carrying out this free radical research for the Navy, it was announced that the American embassy in Moscow was being blasted with invisible microwaves. Some pundits thought that the electromagnetic field [EMF] radiation was activating bugs (eavesdropping devices) within the embassy.

Other “experts” believed that the EMF radiation was intended to disrupt brain function among embassy staffers. The Navy was extremely interested and wanted to know if EMF radiation might have measurable effects on the brain waves of our rats and rabbits.

I left for graduate school in the department of pharmacology at the University of Michigan before the research was completed. But my colleagues in the lab told me that they had indeed detected a biological effect from low-level microwave radiation. As far as I know, that research was never published. You can read about my experience and concerns in this article:

Health Hazards from Hybrids?

As far as I can tell, the US government is not very interested in EMF radiation. As you will read in my article above, we are all being exposed to an increasing amount of this energy. There are standards for how much we are supposed to be exposed to from various energy sources, but it is not clear to me that anyone is actually enforcing those standards. This energy is invisible.

Reuters ran this headline on September 15, 2023:

“Why has France banned sales of Apple’s iPhone 12?”

The article went on to say:

“France’s radiation watchdog has banned sales of Apple’s iPhone 12 after tests that it said showed the smartphone breached European radiation exposure limits.

“The Agence Nationale des Frequences (ANFR) said on Tuesday the model’s Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) – a measure of the rate of radiofrequency energy absorbed by the body from a piece of equipment – was higher than legally allowed.”

Final Words:

As far as I can tell, no US agency has been testing smartphones for excessive radiofrequency waves. Do such devices pose a risk? I will not offer an opinion. But when it comes to EMF, I fear that both the government and private enterprises would prefer to adopt the principle:

“see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

In his JAMA editorial, Dr. Relman points out that:

“A lack of information about the effects of radiofrequency energy was interpreted as evidence of implausability, some cases were ignored or inadequately treated, and the response became part of the problem. The unfortunate tendency to dismiss disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and long COVID as of psychological origin illustrate this difficulty.”

“The experience with AHIs provides valuable lessons for clinicians, the scientific and national security communities, and national and international policymakers. We ignore them at our own, collective peril.”

What do you think about the Havana Syndrome and EMF? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Chan, L, et al, "Clinical, Biomarker, and Research Tests Among US Government Personnel and Their Family Members Involved in Anomalous Health Incidents," JAMA, March 18, 2024, doi: 10.1001/jama.2024.2413
  • Pierpaoli, C., et al, "Neuroimaging Findings in US Government Personnel and Their Family Members Involved in Anomalous Health Incidents," JAMA. March 18, 2024, doi: 10.1001/jama.2024.2424
  • Relman, D.A., "Neurological Illness and National Security: Lessons to Be Learned," JAMA, March 18, 2024, doi: 10.1001/jama.2023.26818
  • Polis, B.D., et al, "Stable free-radical forms of plasma proteins or simpler related structures which induce brain excitatory effects," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," Oct. 1969, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.64.2.755
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