The stats are nothing short of staggering: 23 per cent of deployed Canadian soldiers live with the effects of brain injury. In the U.S., limited research suggests that 10 to 20 per cent of combat troops experienced brain injury during their deployment.
Despite this, there is no sure-fire diagnostic test to determine whether a soldier has suffered a brain injury in the battlefield. Persistent concussion symptoms, which some scientists believe are the result of blasts from improvised explosive devices, remain a medically disputed area.
Ibolja Cernak, professor and chair in military and veterans’ clinical rehabilitation at the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, says much more research needs to take place.
“We are still quite far from understanding how [war-related brain] injury happens,” she told the Edmonton Sun.
Which is why the University of Alberta is opening a Centre for Traumatic Brain Injury and Military Research, thanks to a $481,000 donation from the Alberta and Northwest Territories branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
“What we hope to learn is exactly which mechanisms are involved, when they start to be activated,” Cernak told the Edmonton Journal. “Can we actually pre-train soldiers to be more resilient to those injury mechanisms? And finally, can we find and develop a material which would provide better protection?”
The causes of war-related brain injury are disputed. Research published in 2008 by Veterans Affairs Canada refers to the “unproven concern” that “pure blast energy from ambush weapons” can lead to brain injury. Yet, the Edmonton Journal states:
… repetitive low-intensive blasts trigger the release of hormones and oscillate blood pressure, which can damage multiple organs. In the brain, a slow cascade can move through neural pathways on the molecular level, leading to premature aging, degeneration and effects similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
In 1995, Cernak, who had started working as a first responder in the Kosovo conflict, began to collect blood samples from the soldiers she was treating. Using other, non-injured soldiers as a control group, she was looking for biological markers which could indicate recovery.
Cernak said she was shocked to find that one year post-injury, injured soldiers continued to report memory, motor, balance and speech problems. Even now, despite 28-years of neuropathology under her belt, Cernak says she can’t cure these symptoms.
The Centre’s facilities will include a nine-meter long “shock tube” which will stimulate the explosive sounds and kinetic energy that come from improvised explosive devices soldiers encounter in the battlefield. Using rodents, scientists will examine what happens to the body and brain when exposed to these conditions.
Researchers say they hope the lab will also benefit those who have suffered a brain injury as the result of a motor vehicle accident or sports injury.
“It’s so important to have a relatively complex and demanding laboratory setting because that speeds up the transfer of knowledge that can potentially benefit so many,” Cernak told the Edmonton Sun. “We are not doing science for science’s sake. We are doing science for soldiers’ sake.”