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An Open Letter to the U.S Congress on ‘Havana Syndrome’

Politicians must focus on science for answers to the Havana ‘mystery illness’.

Key points

  • Misinformation continues to sow confusion over the cause of 'Havana Syndrome.'
  • The facts and the science all point in one direction: mass suggestion.
  • The official investigation is being driven by politics rather than science.

Many news outlets continue to report that the leading explanation for ‘Havana Syndrome’ is a microwave weapon that has caused brain damage in many of the American diplomats who fell ill in Cuba. The impetus for these stories is a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences and two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There is no credible evidence to support this claim or that ‘attacks’ even occurred.

Alex Waltner Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Alex Waltner Photography/Shutterstock

We are wasting valuable time and resources chasing windmills

It’s not microwaves.

Yes, it’s true that in December 2020, a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that “pulsed microwave radiation” involving the Frey Effect was “the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases” which were deemed to be from an “attack” (p. 17). The Frey Effect is created when microwaves interact with the human nervous system. The panel chair observed that “If a Frey-like effect can be induced on central nervous system tissue responsible for space and motion information processing, it likely would induce…alterations in brain functioning” (p. 61). This report triggered dramatic headlines. For instance, the New York Times proclaimed, “Report Points to Microwave ‘Attack’ as Likely Source of Mystery Illnesses that Hit Diplomats and Spies.” The article stated that “the report provides the most definitive explanation yet for ‘Havana syndrome.'" The Associated Press wrote, “Report Finds Microwave Energy Likely made Diplomats Ill.”

A major reason for invoking the Frey Effect is that many of the victims heard sounds accompanying their ‘attacks’—that’s why the very first theory held that it was an acoustical weapon—a theory that has since been discredited (Bartholomew & Perez, 2018). Sound recordings that accompanied 8 of the first 21 ‘attacks’ were analyzed and identified as insect mating calls. The findings of a panel of specialist scientists who examined the Frey Effect explanation, rejected it (Acoustic Signals, 2018). These findings were never shared with the National Academy of Sciences panel and were only released publicly in Sept. 2021 (Vergano 2021). As a result, Dr. Relman, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that studied Havana syndrome cases has since distanced himself from the panel’s microwave explanation. When asked recently on a nationally broadcast interview, “How confident are you that microwaves are what’s behind these symptoms?” his response was, “We were not confident. And I have to be clear…we didn’t have any direct evidence that this could explain the entire story for sure or even parts of it” (McCammon, 2021). Furthermore, microwaves would disrupt computers and burn out WiFi, something that was not reported in Cuba.

The JAMA Studies did not show Brain Damage

The 2018 study on Havana Syndrome patients in Cuba (Swanson et al., 2018) used an impairment threshold of 40 percent, which was clearly a mistake and far too high. In other words, 40 percent of the population would have been classified as suffering from impairment. How could this submission make it through the peer-review process? My colleague, UCLA Neurologist Robert Baloh was asked by the editors to review the submission as he created some of the tests used in the study. He rejected it (Baloh & Bartholomew, 2020). It is standard practice to show a reviewer the other reviews, but in this instance, they did not. Use of the high impairment threshold prompted Edinburgh University Neurologist Sergio Della Sala to observe that the real mystery is not ‘Havana Syndrome,’ but how the study passed peer review (Della Sala & Cubelli, 2018).

Confusion over Psychogenic Illness

The 2018 JAMA study authors said they ruled out mass psychogenic illness and other “collective delusional disorders” as there was no evidence of malingering (p. 1131). In a later interview, one of the study authors said that the team had discounted a psychological cause as there was no collusion among patients. He said, to have “mass hysteria” you would have to have all of the patients “in collusion together to make sure all their symptoms match” (Sample, 2018). Mass psychogenic illness does not involve collusion.

Misinformation about psychogenic illness has often made its way into mainstream media reports with journalists often describing it with phrases such as, 'it’s all in their heads,’ or ‘imaginary.’ This is inaccurate because the victims are experiencing real symptoms. Such descriptions amplify the social stigma that surrounds these labels—that they are ‘crazy,’ mentally disturbed, or ‘making it up.’ It is a stress response. Recently, the head of the Biden investigation into the causes of ‘Havana Syndrome,’ Pamela Spratlen was forced to resign after refusing to rule out the possibility that mass psychogenic illness is involved in what happened in Cuba (Lederman and Breslauer). This suggests that the investigation is being driven by politics rather than science. There is also an embarrassment aspect and an incentive to keep muddying the waters to mask government incompetence for suggesting implausible secret weapon explanations.

A 2019 JAMA study looked at brain scans of diplomats in Cuba and healthy controls. While they found anomalies, they were not significant. It’s not uncommon to find minor anomalies in any cohort. Brain changes do not equate to brain damage. The authors even noted that they could not rule out individual variation for the anomalies. Twelve of those affected had a history of concussion, compared to zero of the healthy controls, which could account for the differences in the two groups (Ragini et al., 2019). An array of common conditions can generate similar neurological abnormalities, from migraines to depression.

Two Separate Events

‘Havana Syndrome’ has become a catch-all category to explain a variety of health complaints both in Cuba and now internationally. It is important to view these episodes separately, although the first prompted the second. The global spread of ‘Havana Syndrome’ is being driven not by mass psychogenic illness, but mass suggestion after the State Department issued an alert for their embassy staff and intelligence officers to report any ‘anomalous health incidents’ that may or may not be accompanied by unusual sounds. More recently, the US Department of Defense has contacted US service personnel and contractors and told them to report anomalous health incidents that they experienced over the past several years (Austin, 2021). This is destined to produce a deluge of reports because 1) there is a potential financial incentive, and 2) the symptoms are so vague—headache, difficulty concentrating, disorientation, ‘brain fog,’ forgetfulness, insomnia, ear pain, etc.

The facts point to mass psychogenic illness in Cuba, and mass suggestion for the global reports. In the latter case, people are simply reporting an array of health complaints under a new label.



Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects 14 on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, November 2018. Declassified U.S. Government study.

Austin, Lloyd (2021). “Anomalous Health Incident.” Memorandum for All Department of Defense Employees, September 15.

Baloh, Robert, and Bartholomew, Robert (2020). Havana Syndrome. Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus Books.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Perez, Dionisio F. Zaldivar (2018). “Chasing Ghosts in Cuba: Is Mass Psychogenic Illness Masquerading as an Acoustical Attack?” The International Journal of Social Psychiatry 64(5):413-416.

Della Sala S, Cubelli R. (2018). Alleged ‘sonic attack’ supported by poor neuropsychology. Cortex 103:387-388.

Lederman, Josh, and Breslauer, Brenda (2021). “Diplomat Overseeing ‘Havana Syndrome’ Response is Out after 6 Months.” NBC News, September 23, accesed at:….

McCammon, Sarah (2021). “New cases of 'Havana Syndrome' grow as cause remains a mystery.” All Things Considered, National Public Radio (Washington DC), October 15.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. An Assessment of Illness in U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Ragini V, Swanson, RL, Parker D, Ismail A, Shinohara RT, Alappatt JA, et al. (2019).“Neuroimaging findings in US government personnel with possible exposure to directional phenomena in Havana, Cuba.” JAMA 322(4):336-47 (July 23).

“Report finds Microwave Energy likely made US Diplomats Ill.” The Associated Press, December 6, 2020.

Sample, Ian (2018). “What happened to US diplomats in Cuba?” The Guardian, Science weekly podcast, February 23. Accessed at:….

Swanson, Ana, Wong, Edward (2020). “Report Points to Microwave ‘Attack’ as Likely Source of Mystery Illnesses That Hit Diplomats and Spies.” The New York Times, December 5,

Swanson R, Hampton S, Green-McKenzie J, Diaz-Arrastia R, Grady M, Ragini V, et al. (2018). Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba. JAMA 319(11):1125–33. https://doi. org/10.1001/jama.2018.1742.

Vergano, Dan (2021). “A Declassified State Department Report Says Microwaves Didn’t Cause “Havana Syndrome.” BuzzFeed News, September 30, accessed at:….

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