Intended for healthcare professionals


Microwave weapon caused syndrome in diplomats in Cuba, US medical team believes

BMJ 2018; 362 doi: (Published 10 September 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;362:k3848
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

A directional microwave weapon was the most likely cause of debilitating neurological symptoms reported by US diplomats in Cuba who heard strange, unexplained sounds at the onset of their symptoms, says the lead author of a medical team that examined the diplomats and reported preliminary findings in JAMA in March.1 That article noted evidence of brain injury but did not offer an explanation of the cause.

Microwave weapons were a recurring theme at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Cuba policy on 6 September, although State Department officials, while still characterising the events of November 2016 as an “attack,” were unwilling to support any particular theory of how it was carried out.

“We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome,” testified Charles Rosenfarb, the State Department’s medical director. “It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause.”

The team from the University of Pennsylvania that examined the diplomats came to similar conclusions in their JAMA report in March. But Douglas Smith, the report’s lead author and director of the university’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, said this week that microwave attack was now considered the most likely explanation.

The JAMA article drew several critical letters from other doctors, who suggested that the team had too easily ruled out mass psychogenic illness and that their test criteria for impaired brain function were too loose.2 But the researchers were more sure than ever that the brain injuries were real, Smith told the New York Times.

“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.”

The psychogenic theory has been undermined by the passage of time, the team believes, as symptoms have persisted and most of the patients have shown little improvement. Only seven of the 21 diplomats affected have been able to return to work.

They complain of cognitive decline, fatigue, and headache—especially after cognitive effort—and in some cases tinnitus, nausea, and balance problems.

Most reported that their symptoms started when they heard an unexplained sound that seemed to come from a particular direction and that was not reduced by blocking their ears. In one case a diplomat’s wife looked outside to see a van speeding away.

But supporters of the psychogenic theory said that reports spiked dramatically after diplomats were warned of attacks with a possible “sonic weapon.” Canadian diplomats later reported similar events, as did a US consulate in China. One staff member from that consulate has a syndrome like those seen in the Cuba staff, the State Department said.

Key to the microwave theory is a phenomenon known as radiofrequency hearing or sometimes as the Frey effect, in which microwaves directed at the temporal lobes can be perceived by the brain as sound, even in deaf people. That discovery in 1960 prompted a flurry of microwave weapon research in both the US and the Soviet Union, but where that research led, particularly in Russia, is unclear.

Microwave experts seem to be divided on whether the technology was capable of inflicting the harms reported by the diplomats. A leading advocate of the theory, University of California professor of medicine Beatrice Golomb, will present evidence in October in the peer reviewed journal Neural Computation.

A team of Cuban scientists are also expected to publish their evidence for findings of a “collective psychogenic disorder” in the coming days.


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