Promising results in DRDC study on traumatic brain injury

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January 23, 2017

Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) scientists are analyzing specific proteins in rats that help to measure the effects of traumatic injury on the brain.

Primary blast-induced mild traumatic brain injury (PbTBI) is an important topic of study because exposure to a blast is a potential hazard for many Canadian Armed Forces members, both on exercise or during operations. Treating brain injury is a delicate but important task, and the effects of different types of trauma make this field extremely complex.

DRDC has a Blast Injury Program at the lab in the Suffield Research Centre in Alberta. The defence science teams there are learning more about the effects of primary blast waves on the brain. “Primary blast consists of the pressure wave produced as the gases expand away from the detonation,” explains Yushan Wang, one of the defence scientists leading the project. “This shock wave is characterized by an almost instantaneous increase in pressure, which lasts a few thousandths of a second. It is thought that at far-field distances from the blast, where you are unlikely to be thrown or hit by projectiles, PbTBI may be caused by exposure to the blast wave.

The long-term goal is to find a way to diagnose and treat primary blast-induced traumatic brain injury as early as possible. To do this, defence scientists are coming at the problem from all angles; behavioral, biochemical, molecular, and immunohistochemical testing are all part of the study. Immunohistochemistry uses antibodies and a contrast-increasing microscope to study particular proteins in tissues that have faced stressors.

The increase or decrease in the levels of these proteins over time can help to demonstrate what happens in the brain after being exposed to a primary blast. The experiment consists of anaesthetizing experimental animals and exposing them to primary blast waves, the pressure of which is tightly controlled by the scientists. After exposure, the testing begins. The rats were subjected to a number of behaviour tests designed to assess learning and memory, anxiety levels, mobility and balance ability – all of which are relevant to human brain injuries. Along with this, scientists used immunohistochemistry to look for changes in the brain itself. The combination of these two techniques allows for more nuanced data on the actual effects of a primary blast on the brain. Noting the behavioral changes allows for a record of visible symptoms over time and simultaneously analyzing the molecular activity shows researchers what’s going on in the brain. This method ideally will allow scientists to associate particular molecular patterns with specific symptoms. By acquiring a better understanding of how the brain is affected by a primary blast, it’s hoped these studies will lead to new methods of treatment.

Further research and experiments will be required – there is a long way to go between testing on animals and developing results applicable to humans. “DRDC scientists continue to provide tremendous research and support to help protect members of the Canadian Armed Forces,” says the CAF Surgeon General, Brigadier-General Hugh MacKay. “Their creative research approach will bring us a far better understanding of the potential effects of blast exposure.” Although there is still a long road ahead, the study has so far cultivated promising results, which may one day benefit all Canadians.

Dr. Yushan Wang

Dr. Yushan Wang is a defence scientist at DRDC’s Suffield Research Centre.  Trained as a Molecular Neuroscientist, he has been tasked to lead DRDC’s Primary Blast program to study injury mechanisms in small laboratory animals since 2009. 

Together with his colleagues, he has presented at various scientific as well as defence conferences and published peer reviewed papers on the subject matter.  He has served as a panel member of NATO blast injury groups. 

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