Mysterious sonic weapons reportedly caused brain injuries in US diplomats in Cuba — here's what we know

  • Mysterious "sonic weapons" have been blamed for symptoms affecting American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba.
  • Victims reported hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, nervous system damage, and balance issues.
  • Sound-based weapons exist, but experts aren't sure whether any were actually used in this case.

More than 10 US diplomats and their family members in Cuba have experienced strange symptoms including hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, and central nervous system damage after being exposed to some kind of mysterious sonic weapon, according to a review of medical records by CBS News.

The Associated Press reported: "After months of investigation, U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose."

But a number of experts aren't sure whether such a device exists.

See the U.S. embassy in Havana: 

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People walk past the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A tour bus of Transgaviota drives past the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba June 13, 2017. Picture taken June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
An exterior view of the U.S. Embassy is seen in Havana, Cuba, June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
People wait in line to enter the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, April 20, 2017. Picture taken April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
People wait to enter the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, April 20, 2017. Picture taken April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A vintage car passes by in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Cuban flags fly near U.S flag beside the U.S embassy in Havana December 31, 2015. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa
A man lowers the Cuban flag while standing amidst flagposts installed outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Flagposts installed outside the U.S. embassy cast their shadows on the sidewalk of the seafront Malecon in Havana, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists pass by the U.S. Embassy in Havana, February 18, 2016. Picture taken February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Competitors run past the U.S. embassy during the Marabana marathon in Havana, November 15, 2015. In the year since detente, more Americans are visiting Cuba, and more Cubans are trying to reach the U.S., concerned that special treatment for Cubans may end. While foreigners are in a frenzy, most Cubans report little change. Although they have guaranteed education and healthcare and minimal fear of violent crime, their wages are poor and economic opportunities limited. Picture taken November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
The Cuban flag flies at half staff in recognition of the death of Fidel Castro, the long time leader of Cuba, at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, U.S., November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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"There isn't an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms," Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist and author of the book "The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind," told Business Insider via email.

Horowitz explained that no known inaudible — and seemingly undetectable — device could have the properties attributed to these strange sonic weapons.

Would someone target diplomats with mysterious devices?

Starting in late 2016, a number of diplomats and their family members sought medical attention for mysterious nausea, hearing problems, and balance issues. At least five Canadians have experienced similar symptoms, according to CNN.

The attacks — if that's what they were — appear to have stopped. But it remains unknown what sort of device could have caused these medical issues and who was behind these attacks.

Diplomats have experienced other forms of harassment, like break-ins and surveillance, since the US formally restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015. But a physical attack is unprecedented, and many experts say Cuba has no interest in damaging relations with the US. Some experts have said that the fact Canadians experienced similar symptoms make the possibility of an intentional "attack" even less likely, since Cuba and Canada have a strong relationship.

Because of these factors, experts wonder whether the symptoms could be the result of a third party (potentially from another government) trying to sabotage US-Cuban relations. Others have mused that this could be some sort of eavesdropping device gone haywire.

It "sounds like a science experiment," James Carson, former head of the US Interests Section in Havana, told The New York Times.

For the most part, it seems victims didn't hear anything, which implies the device operates outside the audible range of sound. But CNN's report said two officials also described "a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping across a floor," though no one knew where that sound came from.

FLASHBACK: Obama becomes the first U.S. president in decades to go to Cuba: 

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Cuban President Raul Castro (R) raises US President Barack Obama's hand during a joint press conference at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) while acknowledging members of Congress that are attending a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive to the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks with Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel ahead of the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gestures during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: The Presidential motorcade carries U.S. President Obama from the Cuban State Council following a joint press conference on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years.(Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro hold a joint press conference at the Cuban State Council, on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Cuban President Raul Castro delivers a statement alongside U.S. President Barack Obama at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement alongside Cuban President Raul Castro at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama stands near the Jose Marti memorial after taking part in a wreath laying ceremony in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C-L) and Cuban President Raul Castro (C-R) meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama stands with Salvador Valdez Mesa, Vice President of the Council of Ministry, as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) listens to the US national anthem next to the US delegation at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. Obama, meeting Castro for only the third time for formal talks, was the first US president in Cuba since 1928. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama walks up the stairs of the Palacio de la Revolucion to meet Cuban President Raul Castro on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will be sitting down for bilateral talks. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20, 2016. On Sunday, Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, touching down in Havana for a landmark trip aimed at ending decades of Cold War animosity. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE / AFP / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) walks through the the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (R) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14, stop to look at a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (L) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama signs a visitors' book at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Jose Marti monument in the Revolution Palace of Havana next to the Vice-President of the Cuban Council Salvador Valdes Mesa (R) on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro pose for photographs after greeting one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will sit down for bilateral talks and will deliver joint statements to the news media. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Cuban President Raul Castro meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama and John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, listen to the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R), First Lady Michelle Obama (C) and US Charge d'Affaires in Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis meet with US embassy staff in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama arrived in Cuba to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War conflict that turned the communist island and its giant neighbor into bitter enemies. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Air Force One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The plane transporting US President Barack Obama lands at Jose Marti international airport in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama, who is on a historic three-day visit to the communist-ruled island, flew to Cuba Sunday to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War standoff, but the arrest of dozens of dissidents just as his plane took off underlined the delicacy of the mission. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Sasha Obama (R) arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Toby Heys, the leader of Manchester Metropolitan University's Future Technology research center told New Scientist that it's possible for something emitting infrasound — vibrations at a frequency below what humans can hear — to cause hearing loss. But Heys said that would require large subwoofers, making covert deployment unlikely.

Ultrasound devices, which operate above the range of human hearing, exist and could damage the ears, Heys said. But these would need to be directly targeted into the ear.

"Overall, I would be pretty circumspect about the claims to be honest — it is all very Philip K. Dick territory," Heys said. "That said, we are living in a fairly surreal world right now."

Horowitz said via email that without more evidence of these weapons, this incident should be considered a non-story, and that other possible explanations for these medical problems should be considered.

The use of sonic weaponry

Sonic weapons do exist, but for the most part they are "highly visible and easy to avoid," according to Horowitz.

Such weapons include long range acoustic devices, or LRADs, which emit a shill, loud, disabling sound that can damage the hearing of people more than 900 feet away. These devices have been used by US troops in Iraq, for crowd control in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and by cruise ships to repel Somali pirates. Similar "sound cannons" were also used by police against protestors at the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh in 2009.

But those devices are large and emit obvious sounds. A mystery machine that emits harmful, silent waves defies any immediate explanation.

Business Insider has reached out to other experts on non-lethal weaponry and will update this post if a plausible explanation emerges.

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