Researchers looking into bizarre reports of US diplomatic staff in Cuba and later China hearing troubling noises before developing symptoms very similar to brain trauma have pinned the most likely cause — and it's not some form of mysterious sonic device, as previously speculated.
Instead, according to a report in the New York Times on Saturday, they have increasingly become convinced that unknown parties attacked the staff with some sort of microwave radiation emitter, possibly one small enough to truck around in a van. The Times wrote:
The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study's lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.
"Everybody was relatively sceptical at first," he said, "and everyone now agrees there's something there." Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion.
Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety.
Other scientific research has concluded that either pulsed radiofrequency or microwave radiation could have produced the effects noted by the diplomatic staff and medical personnel, Science Daily wrote this week. One peer-reviewed paper by University of California, San Diego medical professor Beatrice A. Golomb that will be published in Neural Computation in September argues that the reported symptoms are similar to those reported in other little-understood maladies related to RF/MW exposure.
Instead of an actual sound, the Times added, victims could be suffering auditory delusions from microwave radiation exposure — a phenomenon called the Frey Effect, named after 83-year-old scientist Allan H. Frey. Concentrated microwave radiation, when directed at the signal-processing auditory cortexes of each of the brain's human temporal lobes, can trigger the perception of audio even in deaf people. One key piece of evidence: Some staff who heard the noises said that they could not stop it by covering their ears.
Frey told the Times that Russian personnel were interested in developing technologies that could exploit these effects on humans, dubbing them psychophysical and psychotronic weapons. (At one point, he added, Russian intelligence personnel escorted him to a lab where they were building some.)
However, US researchers have claimed they could use the Frey Effect to beam intelligible signals (i.e. language) directly into the heads of test subjects, the paper wrote. The Pentagon build a terrifying weapon called the Active Denial System, which causes burning sensations on skin, using related technology.
Per the Times, the technology required to build these kinds of weapons systems are now more or less an open secret, though it's unclear which foreign countries might be able to build an advanced version:
Russia, China and many European states are seen as having the know-how to make basic microwave weapons that can debilitate, sow noise or even kill. Advanced powers, experts say, might accomplish more nuanced aims such as beaming spoken words into people's heads. Only intelligence agencies know which nations actually possess and use such unfamiliar arms.
The microwave theory is just the latest in a long string of possible explanations that has included everything from malfunctioning ultrasonic surveillance gear to toxin exposure or psychogenic illness (what was formerly called mass hysteria, but of which real pain is a known symptom).
However, the Times noted that those who seem to agree on its plausibility include University of Illinois scientist and Bio Electro Magnetics editor-in-chief Dr. James C. Lin, federal investigators, and the State Department:
Francisco Palmieri, a State Department official, was asked during the open Senate hearing if "attacks against US personnel in Cuba" had been raised with Moscow.
"That is a very good question," Mr. Palmieri replied. But addressing it, he added, would require "a classified setting."
Not everyone is convinced, however:
5/American work on U.S. microwave weapons intended to target humans has been an unmitigated disaster, in my view. Filled with secrecy, overblown claims, and ultimately weapons of questionable utility, like the Active Denial System, which was never deployed on the battlefield.
— Sharon Weinberger (@weinbergersa) September 1, 2018
The evidence is mounting that something shady is indeed going on here. But none of the explanations are definitive yet, even as this story keeps getting weirder.