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Unveiling The Enigma: The Mysterious Journey of the CIA Hearing Sickness and its Unprecedented Resolution

In the summer of 2017, a group of specialists from the University of Pennsylvania was entrusted with the task of evaluating, treating, and rehabilitating patients suffering from a sickness they have never seen before. Even stranger was the type of patients they were treating. The team was known as Penn’s Centre for Brain Injury and Repair (PCBIAR). In December of 2016, a CIA officer checked into the American Embassy’s Health Office in Havana, Cuba. He described experiencing “strange sensations of sound and pressure while in his home, followed by painful headaches and dizziness.” Within the next two years, 42 CIA officers and their families reported experiencing the same thing. The US government was faced with one of its strangest challenges: the Havana Syndrome, better known as the CIA Hearing Sickness.

Origins of the Sickness

A few days after the initial case of the hearing sickness, two more CIA officers reported experiencing the same ailment. By late 2018, the numbers had grown to 39 diplomats. The PCBIAR compiled a complete list of symptoms, including a wide variety of neurocognitive issues: persistent memory and thinking dysfunction, trouble concentrating, difficulties finding the right words, visual focusing issues, dizziness, inability to balance, headaches, insomnia, nausea, and vertigo. Stranger still is the fact that all 42 patients claimed that their symptoms were triggered by a strange high-pitched noise they heard in their homes or at the hotels they were staying in. The illness puzzled doctors and medical experts.

The PCBIAR team diagnosed concussion-like symptoms, but there was never any evidence of concussions in any of the patients. Douglas H. Smith of the Penn team stated that “none of the patients have suffered any type of blunt head trauma, yet the evaluations and symptoms described, demonstrate that they are remarkably similar to those found in persistent concussion symptoms.” Furthermore, it is still unclear how the high-pitched sounds relate to the illness, even to this day. The illness only affected government employees from the US and Canada, as well as their families. For example, in autumn 2017, a Canadian diplomat and his wife were awakened by a feeling of waves of sound and pressure, and when they checked on their children, they had woken up with nosebleeds. It does seem like the illness is being targeted by a hostile government or rogue officials; however, this is never confirmed. To counter this, Canada’s foreign service began warning their staff against bringing their families on assignments, as well as providing housing aids for their officials.

The Sickness Spreads

The brain injuries appear to be airborne, and the fallout that followed was severe. Sixty percent of US diplomats were removed from Cuba, and an additional 15 Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington DC. However, the sickness started to “spread” to other parts of the world, and American officials posted in China and Russia began experiencing the same ailment. On May 23rd, 2018, the State Department in the Guangzhou Consulate issued a health warning for China after revealing that American official Catherine Werner reported hearing strange noises and exhibiting symptoms of a brain injury, describing the noises as “subtle and vague but abnormal sensations of sound and pressure”. The state said that they were unaware of any similar situation elsewhere in China. After this report, a further 15 officials claimed that they were also suffering from this illness and were soon issued an emergency evacuation from China. Once back in Pennsylvania, however, 14 out of the 15 officials were determined to be unaffected. The Chinese government then conducted an investigation on the matter and found “no cause or clues that would lead to the situation mentioned by the US.”

The emergency evacuation was the first sign of an unexplained ailment previously known to have afflicted only one US government employee in China. It had now broadened to affecting 24 diplomats and was threatening to become a full-blown health crisis. One of the evacuees, Mark Lenzi, stated that in April 2018, his wife began hearing “rolling marbles with static”. A few months later, Lenzi himself began experiencing excruciating headaches. This is evidence of the hearing part of the sickness differing when it comes to the individual patient. However, the symptoms always remain the same.

The Sickness Prevails

When first asked about it back in 2016, the Cuban government denied any responsibility, stating that they did not know who or what made the CIA agents sick. However, some were still sceptical of the Cuban government, claiming it was the result of nerves after the Cuban government told the agents that “Cuba is a high-threat, high-stress post”. The agents were also warned that “There will be surveillance. There will be listening devices in your houses, probably in your ear. For some people, that puts them in a high-stress mentality in a threat-anticipation mode.” Perhaps this was the reason for the sickness; however, it does not explain the noises heard before the sickness entered the body. A series of theories were then made by medical experts from all over the US, as well as sceptics and conspiracy theorists. 


In terms of the sickness being caused by a bioweapon of some sort, the CIA themselves claim that they don’t own or know of any weapons that could cause the symptoms. There were also theories of the existence of a pair of eavesdropping devices placed too closely together by Cuban agents to intercept any suspicious conversations from the CIA agents. The devices’ frequencies are similar to that of an ultrasound from the electromagnetic wave spectrum. These devices were said to produce a sound similar to microphone feedback. However, the FBI found no evidence of such a device existing to substantiate this theory. Furthermore, the frequency emitted from an ultrasound is above the hearing range of a human being, meaning that it will not result in a “hearing sickness” as the average human would not be able to hear it and therefore would not be able to get sick from it.

Two of the original patients in 2016 managed to capture what they thought was the sound of the sickness. This only added more confusion however. Two scientists from the University of California studied the recordings and believed that the patients caught the sound of the male Lovelorn Cricket. One of the scientists, Alexander Stubbs, stated that “you can hear the crickets from inside a truck going 40 miles an hour down a highway.” However, this still does not explain how these cricket sounds managed to lead to human illness. Neuro-weapons specialists at Georgetown University speculate that the illness was caused by microwave rays whose wavelengths are found at the higher end of the electromagnetic wave spectrum. They suggested it was a device that emitted radio frequencies or electromagnetic pulses that entered through the victims’ ears, stating that “the structured variations in the head of the victims could help explain why some would hear a specific high-pitched sound whilst others did not.”

A group of researchers at the University of Michigan suggested that it was a poorly engineered ultrasonic transmitter designed to eavesdrop on conversations that caused the brain injuries. After conducting a few experiments, the group managed to replicate the metallic chirping sounds that some of the CIA agents reported hearing in conjunction with the attacks in Cuba. This, in turn, raised the likelihood that the injuries were the result of ultrasonic signals. None of these theories were confirmed nor denied.

An End to the Sickness

In the two years of attacks from Cuba to China, we are still kept in the dark about the cause or cure of the sickness. Fortunately, the Penn’s Centre for Brain injury and Repair did manage to rehabilitate 20 patients. The team consisted of experts from many different neurological fields, including  neurosurgery, bioengineering, pharmacology, pathology, neurology, paediatrics, neuroradiology, rehabilitation, occupational medicine, and emergency medicine. Working in a highly collaborative environment, these researchers studied ways to significantly improve the quality of life for the victims of traumatic brain injury and to prevent the "secondary" or delayed injuries that are initiated by brain trauma.


The Penn team successfully developed individualised interdisciplinary neurorehabilitation programs designed to help each patient recover fully and safely resume their work. The treatment consisted of using a range of occupational medicine, neuropsychology, neurosurgery, and neuroradiology. Dr Randel Swanson, who mediated the team, states that “the good news is that the symptoms appear to be responsive to the rehabilitation intervention in a similar fashion as we see in patients with persisting symptoms following a concussion. While some patients reported that some symptoms diminished on their own over time with no treatments, most individuals had symptoms that didn’t begin to improve until targeted therapies were initiated”. This then marked the “end” of the CIA Hearing Sickness.

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