09/24/2013 01:15 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

University of Alberta researcher heading to Afghanistan to study soldier stress

CALGARY - A University of Alberta researcher will deploy with Canadian troops to Afghanistan to study how soldiers cope with stress.

Dr. Ibolja Cernak will spend a month in Kabul as part of her assessment of how soldiers and veterans cope physically and emotionally before, during and after deployment.

"The whole question is what can we do to significantly improve the military's life? We are still actually doing so-called reactive rehabilitation," she said.

"Once people have some problem — injuries, illnesses — then we apply some kind of treatment or therapy and try to improve their function."

Cernak said it is even more of a problem for both serving soldiers and those who are no longer in the service.

"Very often, when military personnel accept that they have a problem it's usually too late to put back that function as it was before. So the idea was, 'Can we do something and not wait for the fully developed and fully fledged manifesting problems? Can we be pre-emptive?'," said Cernak.

She says the three biggest problems facing soldiers are mental health, concussions and lower back pain.

Cernak hopes to come up with ways to prevent some of these problems, which can sometimes become irreversible.

"Mental health and neurological issues from concussions develop very slowly and then suddenly, all the mechanisms underlying these problems become so powerful, soldiers and veterans cannot keep a lid on them,” said Cernak, an expert on blast induced neurotrauma.

Some 120 soldiers from bases in Edmonton and Shilo, Man., have volunteered to participate in the study.

Cernak’s team started by completing baseline tests before deployment by measuring how long it takes soldiers to analyze situations around them, responses to visual stimuli, memory, ability to control impulses, and how they process emotions, which affects how they interact with others.

Participants also completed questionnaires, offering self-reported insight into factors that keep them going and about their quality of life. Cernak said soldiers also provided biological samples such as urine and saliva, which quantify how their bodies cope with stress by measuring indicators like stress hormones and enzymes.

Cernak’s team will conduct the same tests on the same group in Afghanistan, where soldiers experience increased stress from unfamiliar lifestyle arrangements, changed nutrition, sleep deprivation and displacement from loved ones.

Additional tests will be done when they return from Afghanistan and again at six months, one year, three years and five years.