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expert reaction to brain imaging of US Government Personnel with possible exposure to acoustic phenomena in Cuba

Research, published in JAMA, reports differences in the brains of US government employees who were potentially exposed to acoustic phenomena in Cuba, compared to a group of healthy individuals who were not exposed.

 

Prof Jon Stone, Consultant Neurologist at NHS Lothian and Professor at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“A whole range of conditions such as those causing chronic dizziness, migraine or even depression will tend to show changes in the brain in these types of studies in comparison to healthy controls, since all those conditions arise from the brain.

“The study supports the validity of the patients report of symptoms, but doesn’t answer the question of whether they have had a brain injury or not or whether the exposure they report is relevant.”

 

Prof Derek Hill, Professor of Medical Imaging, University College London (UCL), said:

“This paper uses brain scanning to study 40 US government personnel who experienced strange sensations while working in Cuba, and who, it has been speculated, may have been exposed to a novel beam weapon that damages the brain. This paper uses advanced brain imaging methods to look for possible damage to the brain of these government personnel by comparing their brains to normal controls. 

“The authors found some brain differences between the US government personnel and the controls – especially in the brain’s white matter “wiring” – suggesting that the exposure those personnel suffered might have damaged their brains.  

“As the authors themselves acknowledge, this research has quite a few limitations. Firstly, by its very nature, this sort of investigation is not a carefully controlled experiment. It isn’t possible to know how much exposure each individual had to the “weapon”, the time that passed between exposure and the brain scanning was highly variable, and there are just 40 individuals that were studied.  Furthermore, there are many possible causes of differences between the brains of the control group and the US government personnel other than their exposure to any possible beam weapon. While the authors tried to match controls, there are many factors that cause brain differences between individuals: it is quite possible that the government personnel could have had different brains to start with, or that the treatment they received rather than the original exposure might have impacted their brains.   A much better way of studying the impact of exposure on the brain would be to image the same people before and after exposure, but of course that isn’t possible in this case.  And even then, changes in the brain that are detected might not be associated with long term damage.

“This thorough work is intriguing but inconclusive: it may provide evidence that there were brain changes resulting from exposure to the “weapon” in Cuba. But the results must be treated with caution. The work on its own doesn’t prove there was brain damage, much less tell us what actually happened to these US personnel in Cuba.”

 

* ‘Neuroimaging Findings in US Government Personnel With Possible Exposure to Directional Phenomena in Havana, Cuba’ by Ragini Verma et al. was published in JAMA at 16:00 UK time on Tuesday 23rd July. 

DOI: 10.1001/jama.2019.9269

 

Declared interests

Prof Derek Hill: No conflicts of interest

None others received.

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