CALGARY – The long-term impact of roadside bombings on the brains of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is the focus of two research projects underway in Western Canada.
“In recent years, encounters with improvised explosive devices or IEDs in Afghanistan have inflicted traumatic brain injury on a number of Canadian soldiers,” said Dr. Robert Thirsk, a former Canadian astronaut who is now a vice-president with the Canadian Institute of Health Research.
“The impact of these blasts may not be immediately apparent. Months after the event the soldiers can suffer from the neurological problems and the mental disorders like anxiety that we’re reading about in the newspapers. These weapons may be improvised, but our response to them needs to be strategic.”
Dr. Yu Tian Wang of the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia is looking at the biological changes that occur in the brain at the cellular level following an injury by an explosive device.
Wang is studying whether a drug can reduce the death and dysfunction of brain cells following injury.
“We know that during traumatic brain injuries some synaptic connections become weakened and the information from one neuron to another is slowed down,” Wang said. “Now we know the underlying reason is due to a particular memory surface protein being reduced.”
Wang said an injection of peptides could provide protection to brain cells before a blast and possibly help repair damage if given immediately after an explosion.
“Obviously if you give it before, it’s best. If you give it early, the rescue is more dramatic.” Wang said. “We’re testing now to see if it works after injuries and how long after injury it can be given.”
In another project, Dr. Ibolja Cernak from the University of Alberta is researching the link between damage to the cerebellum — the motor control centre at the back of the brain — and the chronic balance, memory and behavioural problems that are brought on by blasts.
It’s hoped the research may lead to new therapies and can identify soldiers who are at the greatest risk for developing neurological and mental disorders associated with blast exposure.
“Very often, the soldiers are exposed to multiple low-intensity blasts. They just shrug with their shoulders, but the problem with that is low- intensity blast exposures very often can cause damage in accumulated ways and cause degeneration in the brain,” said Cernak, who holds the Canadian Military and Veterans chair in clinical rehabilitation at the University of Alberta.
Cernak is exposing mice to repeated blasts to determine the actual degeneration. She said blast-induced concussions are much different than would been seen in something such as a hockey injury.
It’s possible soldiers are feeling effects just by being present during training exercises where explosions and artillery are being tested. Often soldiers do not even realize they’ve being affected, Cernak said.
“In low-intensity blasts they often just feel a pressure change like a wind on the face and that’s it. There are so many blasts during a bomb deployment.”