A Cuba Happening

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

March 9, 2018

This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News.

A very strange thing happened to American diplomats in Cuba in late 2016 and early 2017. They reported that in their homes or hotel rooms, they were exposed to unusual sounds coming from a precise direction. In some instances, there were repeated exposures. In addition to sounds, they often experienced pain in one ear. Following these initial episodes, they had persistent, cognitive problems, similar to those seen after concussions. The effected personnel were first evaluated at the University of Miami, primarily for auditory issues. When it became apparent that there were also persistent cognitive problems, the subsequent evaluations took place at the University of Pennsylvania, months after the initial symptoms. The Penn group recently published their initial findings based on evaluations of 21 subjects: “Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba.”

I had the opportunity to speak with some of the physicians who evaluated these subjects—all were convinced that their symptoms were real and not some form of hysteria. Secondly, they reported that the diplomats were getting better, and that many were back at work. In two instances, a partner or spouse was also involved and symptomatic. Currently, no evaluator has conclusively diagnosed what occurred. Perhaps it was some form of infection; but there were no other symptoms, such as fever or malaise. Maybe it was some form of intoxication, or maybe some form of diffuse brain injury.

James Bond, where are you when we need you?

I would like to use the second part of this column to acknowledge “Brain Awareness Week,” taking place March 12-18 this month. I was there at the beginning, when Dana Foundation Chair David Mahoney nixed the plans for a “Brain Day,” and “Brain Awareness Week” was born in its place. Initially, in an attempt to get legislators involved, it was confined to small gatherings in Washington, D.C.

Now, Brain Awareness Week is in its 23rd year and has spread world-wide. All this has been spearheaded by Dana’s Barbara Gill, Barbara Best, director Kathleen Roina, and now others. There are numerous goals for the campaign as it increases in popularity, but I’d like to highlight a few that have been there since its inception: 1. To spread information about the importance of brain research; 2. To make the public aware of its progress; and 3. To inspire the next generation of neuroscientists, with programs aimed at the K-12 grades.

Brain Awareness Week has been eminently successful, with no signs of slowing down.

 Guy McKhann, M.D., is professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He serves as scientific consultant for the Dana Foundation and scientific advisor for Brain in the News.