Dr. Ryan D’Arcy aids brain recovery with Project Iron Soldier

The SFU professor discusses the project’s methods and findings

PHOTO: Simon Fraser University Communications & Marketing / Flickr

Written by: Mahdi Dialden, News Writer 

A study led by SFU applied sciences professor Ryan D’Arcy and an SFU team of researchers spearheaded Project Iron Soldier. The project surrounds Captain Trevor Greene, a retired veteran who was hit in the back of the head by an axe in Afghanistan while on duty in 2006 and suffered severe and traumatic brain injuries. 

Over 10 years ago, the Centre for Neurology Studies at Health Tech Connex, co-founded by Dr. D’Arcy, began working with Captain Greene. In an interview with The Peak, Dr. D’Arcy explained that Project Iron Soldier “aimed to help with recovery from brain injury and other devastating neurologic conditions using the scientific concept of neuroplasticity — which is basically just a fancy way to say rewiring the brain circuits to recover function.

“The main objective of the project has been from the outset, in the beginning, was to inspire people, to push the limits in their own brain health,” Dr. D’Arcy said. He expanded by adding that this can refer to “concussions, mental health, or optimizing overall brain health.”

Captain Greene’s rehabilitation with Dr. D’Arcy began three years after the injury, following a documentary Dr. D’Arcy watched about a captain called “Peace Warrior” who underwent rehabilitation with an orthopedics specialist. However, as a neuroscientist, Dr. D’Arcy realized the issue with “Peace Warrior” was related to his brain. Dr. D’Arcy emailed the producer of the documentary offering his help. 

“We got connected and we agreed that using advanced brain imaging, we could measure his brain rewiring through neuroplasticity. We could publish that as a research team together to get it into the medical literature,” he said. 

The treatment was expedited when Dr. D’Arcy and his team decided to do a 14-week trial with a device called the Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator (or PoNS). The function of the PoNS is to send “a series of small electrical impulses to the brain by stimulating the tongue.” This device, coupled with physical therapy, helped in the process of neuroplasticity, which is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change and grow,” and eventually seeing improvements in overall cognition. 

In 2015, the BC and Yukon Command of the Royal Canadian Legion gave Captain Greene a robotic exoskeleton that would aid in re-learning to walk. The work inspired the revitalization of the Canadian Royal Canadian Legion, and the creation of a Legion Veterans Village, currently under construction in Surrey, which is a center of excellence to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health, and physical recovery for veterans. 

“We’re always looking for excited and interested students who think that this [ . . . ] is something that is of interest to them, and that can be from all walks of life. It can be from our applied sciences or engineering and our computing science [departments], but it can actually also be from our biological sciences, our neurosciences and our health sciences. I always love interacting with students and seeing if there’s ways to partner there,” Dr. D’Arcy concluded.