Breakthrough in rewiring brain pushes limits in "Iron Soldier" recovery

October 14, 2020

A new study from a Simon Fraser University research team, led by the Centre for Neurology Studies at HealthTech Connexreports the latest breakthroughs from Project Iron Soldier. Captain (retired) Trevor Greene, who was attacked with an axe to the head while serving in Afghanistan in 2006, continues to push conventional limits in brain health recovery 14 years later.

The study, published last month in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, demonstrates that work to rewire Greene’s brain using the latest advancements in brain technology has led to significant cognitive improvements, and may also stimulate the brain to overcome an extended recovery plateau. 

SFU applied sciences professor Ryan D’Arcy and a team of SFU researchers began working with Greene 11 years ago, using new technologies and conventional physical therapy. When progress slowed, however, the team launched an extensive 14-week trial using a device called the Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator (or PoNS™) to overcome Greene’s extended recovery plateau. The PoNS sends a series of small electrical impulses to the brain by stimulating the tongue (known as translingual neurostimulation).

Combining the PoNS with physical therapy to safely stimulate neuroplasticity (the ability of neural networks in the brain to change and grow), they tracked significant improvements in Greene’s physical therapy and dramatic improvements in cognition and in symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“Our goal, right from the beginning of this research, was to use Trevor’s example to inspire countless others to be hopeful and push their own limits in brain recovery from injuries or PTSD or mental health or anything they may be facing—to show that there could be hope in how you could rewire your brain,” says D’Arcy, co-founder of HealthTech Connex.

Says Greene, “It's really been a game changer for me and my family. I first saw the power of neuroplasticity in the early days when Ryan showed me MRI images of my brain showing healthy brain tissue taking over for the damaged bits. Later on, I saw the full power of the PoNS device when I got demonstrably stronger, steadier and more coordinated after using it regularly for just a few weeks.”

Shaun Fickling, the study’s lead author, an SFU engineering science PhD who will be convocating later this month, says, “Trevor’s amazing progress is no doubt pushing the frontiers of medical science by overcoming perceived limits of brain recovery. These brain-imaging results provide valuable insight into the importance of unleashing the power of neuroplasticity to inspire countless people impacted by brain and mental health conditions.”

Attack in Afghanistan

In 2006 Greene survived a severe brain injury when he was attacked with an axe to the head during his combat tour in Afghanistan. He spent years in various therapies and rehabilitation, and in 2009, he started working with D’Arcy to track his progress.

Project Iron Soldier

Five years ago, the B.C. and Yukon Command of the Royal Canadian Legion helped outfit Trevor with a robotic exoskeleton, which helped him continue re-learning to walk. Called Project Iron Soldier, and unveiled during a demo with Greene at SFU’s Surrey campus in 2015, the initiative inspired plans for a Legion Veterans Village, a $312M Centre of Excellence for PTSD, mental health and rehabilitation dedicated to veterans and first responders, now under construction in Surrey. 

Learn more
Read more about Ryan D'Arcy’s career and history of helping Captain Trevor Greene.