Health Tech

This is Your Brain on Microwaves


Those of us of a certain age well remember the 1987 ad campaign from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. It equated frying an egg to what drugs did to our brains. The ad certainly impacted awareness, but it is less clear that it impacted drug use or, for that matter, that it actually was like what drugs did to our brains.

Well, it turns out that there is something that can scramble our brains, but it’s microwaves, and it appears that “malevolent actors” are using them to do just that. We’re now in the age of “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy.” 

There were reports coming out of Havana in 2016 of State Department employees complaining of mysterious symptoms, including dizziness, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, balance issues, and hearing loss. Over the next couple years there were more reports, in Cuba and in other countries, including China and Russia, with CIA officers also seemed to be common targets. It has been labeled “the Havana syndrome.”

As least 44 people from Cuba and 15 from China were treated at Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, with more believed to have been treated elsewhere. No one could pin down exactly what was happening. 

Now the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has issued a report concluding that the directed, pulsed microwave bursts were “the most plausible mechanism” to explain what happened. They evaluated but ruled out other mechanisms, such as background microwaves, chemical agents, infectious diseases, and even “psychological issues.” 

Committee chairman David Relman, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, said:

The committee found these cases quite concerning, in part because of the plausible role of directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy as a mechanism, but also because of the significant suffering and debility that has occurred in some of these individuals.  We as a nation need to address these specific cases as well as the possibility of future cases with a concerted, coordinated, and comprehensive approach.

One thing in particular that concerned the Committee was the presence of persistent symptoms in many victims – “persistent postural-perceptual dizziness (PPPD), a functional (not psychiatric) vestibular disorder that may be triggered by vestibular, neurologic, other medical and psychological conditions and may explain some chronic signs and symptoms in some patients.”  i.e., not only can you be impacted by such an attack, but the impairment can last an indefinite time. 

Many have suspected Russia as a likely culprit, and, indeed, the committee noted Russian research that dates back several decades. Dr. Relman told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News:

What we found was that there is a literature that describes health effects of a particular form of microwave energy, which is pulsed and directed. And that literature now goes back a number of decades, and was published largely by the former Soviet Union. That literature does mimic and is consistent with a number of the clinical findings that we noted.

The committee suggested that further studies “be undertaken by subject-matter experts with proper clearance, including those who work outside the U.S. government, with full access to all relevant information” – suggesting they suspected there was classified information they did not have access to. 

The State Department, which requested the report but which only allowed the release after NBC News and The New York Times obtained it, was diplomatic in its response: “We are pleased this report is now out and can add to the data and analyses that may help us come to an eventual conclusion as to what transpired…The investigation is ongoing, and each possible cause remains speculative.” 

Dr. Relman seems to have fewer doubts, telling NPR: “What we can say is that something real and significant clinically happened to these people. At least some, if not many, of the signs and symptoms that were reported in these patients can be explained by this particular form of microwave radiation.” The committee looked ahead and:

…was concerned about the possibility of future new cases among DOS [Department of State] or other U.S. government employees working overseas, either similar or dissimilar to these, and the ability of the U.S. government to recognize and respond to these cases in a coordinated and effective manner. The next event may be even more dispersed in time and place, and even more difficult to recognize quickly.

Somewhat disappointingly, most of the committee’s recommendations revolved around more data collection and analysis, and, when necessary, being prepared to “activate the necessary response”  — whatever that might be.   

Lest anyone think this is only an issue for diplomats or other people Russia might target, a few weeks ago there were reports that Chinese troops were turning “the mountain tops into a microwave oven,” according to The Times, in order to force Indian troops to retreat during a border dispute.  “In 15 minutes, those occupying the hilltops all began to vomit,” a Chinese professor said. “They couldn’t stand up, so they fled.”

Curiously, Indian defense officials call the report “FAKE.” One Indian official explained that the attacks are impractical in that situation and the symptoms are not consistent with what is known about such weapons, especially the nausea. Technology journalist David Hambling tends to agree, but notes:

However, it is possible that China has a microwave weapon based on a different physical principle, perhaps something like the Electromagnetic Personnel Interdiction Control (EPIC) device researched by the Pentagon in the early 2000s.

One thing is clear: it’s pretty scary to think about a weapon that you’re not quite sure you’re being attacked by, from where, against which you don’t have any defense, and that can cause lasting physical and mental damage. The committee report warned:

…the mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others, as if the U.S. government does not have its hands full already with naturally occurring threats.

Mr. Hambling believes: “Grey zone warfare, in which conflict remains just under the level of shooting war, is a feature of the 21st century. The Chinese may now think they have the weapon to win it.” And they may not be the only ones. 

Imagine if terrorists got their hands on these weapons. Or militia groups. Or police departments using them to quell protests. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking maybe those people with tinfoil hats might be on to something.

Kim Bellard is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented, and now regular THCB contributor.

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