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Unexplained attacks in Cuba have left U.S. diplomats with brain damage

Investigations of "sonic attacks" last summer have only deepened the mystery.
Sonic Attacks Brain Damage
The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Getty Images

U.S. diplomats subjected to mysterious attacks in Cuba have suffered brain damage, doctors report, including problems with their hearing, vision, balance and memory. Medical tests show that the white matter in the patients' brains, which helps parts of the brain communicate, has been disturbed, the Associated Press reports.

This summer, news stories surfaced that residents of the U.S. embassy in Havana were the victim of "sonic attacks." The victims reported hearing loud, mysterious sounds followed by hearing loss and ringing in the ears. But doctors are now avoiding that term, because the sounds could be the byproduct of something else that caused the damage, U.S. officials told the AP. Twenty-four diplomats and their relatives are affected.

The FBI and intelligence agencies have been investigating the reports of injury for months but don't know who or what is behind them. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was "convinced these are targeted attacks." Cuba has denied any involvement.

Officials are shifting away from the term "sonic attacks" partly because sound waves have never been shown to disturb the brain's white matter. "I would be very surprised" if that happened, said Elisa Konofagou, a biomedical engineering professor at Columbia University, who pointed out that ultrasound is often used on the brain in medical testing. "We never see white matter tract problems."

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Doctors are treating the symptoms like a new, never-before-seen illness. Most of the 24 victims have fully recovered, some after treatment, and many are back at work. About 25% of them had prolonged symptoms or still have them.

U.S. officials told the AP that the sound that patients heard most often was a high-pitched chirp or grating metal; some were awakened from sleep by the sound, even as others around them heard nothing; vibrations sometimes accompanied the sound, which felt similar to the rapid flutter of air when windows of a car are partially rolled down; and those most affected knew immediately that something was affecting their bodies. Some developed visual symptoms within 24 hours, including trouble focusing on a computer screen.