Newswise — Atlanta –- At least 21 government employees who were exposed to unusual noises while serving at the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba, show effects similar to traumatic brain injury without associated head trauma, according to preliminary study results published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Physiatrists at The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair and the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation coordinated a multidisciplinary clinical evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation of the patients. They observed that 21 individuals, all of whom experienced unexplained reactions to audible and/or sensory phenomena of unclear origin while serving in Havana, showed signs of persistent cognitive, vestibular and oculomotor dysfunction, as well as sleep impairment and headaches.

Physiatry, also called physical medicine and rehabilitation, focuses on improving the functioning of patients, often following an injury. This new study is being presented February 17 at 8:00am at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta at this week’s Association of Academic Physiatrists (AAP) Annual Meeting by one of its co-authors, Stephen Hampton, MD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Hampton and the study’s lead author, Randel Swanson, DO, PhD, are both AAP members, and Dr. Swanson is a graduate of AAP’s Rehabilitation Medicine Scientist Training Program (RMSTP).

The study’s findings raise both questions and concern from the co-authors: Are we dealing with an entirely new type of acquired brain injury caused by directed energy of some kind?

“Many questions remain about what could cause the experiences described by these individuals and the signs and symptoms that they have shown. We suspect that some form of widespread brain network dysfunction has occurred. This type of injury would not be expected with sound in the audible spectrum alone,” said Dr. Hampton.

In late 2016, individuals were evaluated by medical personnel at the U.S. embassy in Havana for a strange array of neurological symptoms. Each reported that while staying in their hotel rooms or private homes, they were exposed to auditory or sensory phenomena. Of these, doctors initially identified that at least 16 individuals with similar history of exposure to these phenomena showed symptoms often seen in mild traumatic brain injury, also known as concussion.

In July 2017, experts from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services reviewed the clinical records and determined that the Havana-based employees injuries were likely related to neurotrauma from a non-natural source. From there, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair were selected to coordinate the patients’ evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation by a multidisciplinary team of physicians.

Out of 24 individuals exposed to the phenomena in Havana, 21 completed a multidisciplinary medical evaluation. They were given standardized tests to measure cognitive ability, mood, balance and oculomotor function.

The physicians found that a majority of patients showed persistent symptoms including cognitive, balance, visual and auditory dysfunction, as well as sleep impairment and headaches. A majority of the patients also had cognitive, vestibular and oculomotor abnormalities. Three patients had moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss. Fifteen out of 21 individuals required drug treatment for persistent sleep problems, and 12 out of 21 needed drug treatment for persistent headaches.

Fourteen patients were held from work during their evaluation due to the severity of their symptoms. Out of these, seven were able to gradually return to work, although they required home exercise programs and cognitive rehabilitation to help them deal with their ongoing symptoms. The study’s co-authors confirm that these patients experienced sustained injury to widespread brain networks that’s consistent with blunt head trauma, but with no blows to the head. Instead, they appear to have been exposed to some sort of directed noise or sensory stimuli.

“Though our study is preliminary, we felt it was important to publish our findings given the strong public interest.  We view this as an early step in understanding what happened.  While this work is ongoing, our first priority will remain the clinical care of affected individuals,” said Dr. Hampton.

Journal Link: Journal of the American Medical Association.