Researchers at the University of Alberta are poised to collect more data on traumatic brain injuries (TBI), including those suffered by soldiers, with the construction of a “blast lab.”
With the help of $481,000 donation from the Royal Canadian Legion Alberta NWT Command, the university plans to construct the “shock tube” lab to study the types of brain injuries soldiers experience when exposed to explosive blasts, along with trauma sustained outside military service, such as sport-related concussions.
“Even after very intense research … we are still quite far from understanding how that injury happens,” said Ibolja Cernak, professor and chair in military and veterans’ clinical rehabilitation at the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.
“So what we hope to learn is exactly which mechanisms are involved.”
In order to re create the same kind of kinetic energy release that sends soldiers hurling through the air, the Centre for Traumatic Brain Injury and Military Research will have one of Canada’s only shock tubes — a nine-metre long device capable of simulating the effects of explosions soldiers might experience during a combat mission or training exercises.
Using compressed helium and other gases, the shock tube will be 20 feet long and four feet in diameter, and produce shock waves that travel down the distance of the tube, where sensors measure pressure profiles. Rodents will be exposed to the shock waves to see what happens inside their bodies and brains.
A similar shock tube is currently being used at the Defence Research and Development Canada’s Suffield Research Centre. The one at the U of A will be like a twin sister, Cernak said, adding the two facilities will collaborate and share results.
The blast lab will also allow researchers to compare blast-induced brain trauma with injuries sustained during vehicle collisions, falls or blows to the head from contact sports.
“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,” said Cernak, one of the world’s leading experts in blast-induced neurotrauma. “We are not doing science for science’s sake. We are doing science for soldiers’ sake.”
The incidences of TBI in Canada is about 166,455 per year or one person every three minutes. Canadians suffer TBI at a rate that is seven times higher than breast cancer and 100 times that of spinal cord injury each year.
TBI is of particular concern among military personnel due to increased risk of exposure to concussive injuries from explosions or other military training. Roughly 23% of deployed Canadian Armed Forces personnel have had concussions or mild TBI.
Tammy Wheeler, executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion Alberta NWT Command, said the more that is known about such injuries, the more they can improve the quality of life for the injured and their loved ones.
“This research is kind of near and dear to our heart,” said Wheeler. “We’re seeing a lot of complex cases coming back and we want to make sure that we understand what we can do to help.”