Picture: 123RF/SERHII YAREMENKO
Picture: 123RF/SERHII YAREMENKO

Washington — The brains of about 40 US diplomats injured in mysterious circumstances in Cuba have visible differences as compared to those in a control group, researchers who analysed those hurt at Washington’s request said on Tuesday.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and led by professors at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), does not draw any conclusions about the cause of the symptoms suffered by the diplomats from late 2016 into May 2018.

However, the MRIs of the patients confirm that “something happened to the brains of these people”, Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology at UPenn and co-author of the study, told AFP. “It’s not imagined. All I can say is that there is a truth to be found.”

She added: “Whatever happened was not due to a pre-existing condition, because we test for that.”

From late 2016, diplomats posted in Havana and some of their family members suffered unexplained symptoms ranging from poor balance and vertigo to lack of co-ordination, unusual eye movements, anxiety and what victims called a “cognitive fog”.

The US recalled most of its diplomatic personnel from the Cuban capital in September 2017. Some of them have recovered and returned to work, but others are still undergoing rehab, according to Verma.

The US government never publicly explained the cause of the mysterious illnesses. It neither confirmed nor denied the possibility of attacks using some sort of acoustic weapon, as some US media reported, without offering proof.

Cuba has denied all responsibility for the incidents, which also affected at least 14 Canadian citizens. Ottawa also ended up recalling most of its diplomats from Havana in January.

At the request of the US state department, 44 diplomats and family members were sent from mid-2017 to UPenn’s brain trauma centre to undergo MRI exams. Researchers compared those results with scans from 48 comparable subjects in two control groups. The differences are statistically significant and relate to the brain’s white matter as well as the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement.

A state department spokesperson welcomed “the medical community’s discussion on this incredibly complex issue. The department’s top priority remains the safety, security, and well-being of its staff”.

Verma said it was vital to follow the diplomats and their families over time “to see whether these changes evolve or change”.

AFP