PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s William C. Friday Laboratory has been awarded its third U.S. Department of Defense grant in a little more than a year.
The grant, for nearly $600,000 over three years, will fund a study to understand neurotoxin action.
The lab, located in UNCP’s Biotechnology Center at the COMtech Business Park, will hire its second post-doctoral research associate. Last year, UNCP received two Department of Defense grants — totaling $675,000 — to hire a research scientist and to upgrade lab equipment to study traumatic brain injury.
Dr. Ben Bahr is the lead scientist at the lab, which studies neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries and seizure events.
“The Army is interested in the effects of toxins on the brain, specifically anticholinesterase nerve agents,” Bahr said. “This enzyme controls neuronal signaling that is vital for the heart, lung and brain function, and the Army wants to know in particular what happens to the brains of people who are exposed to low doses of these chemicals. However, we will do the testing in small slices of rat brain tissue we keep alive in a dish.”
These nerve agents are some of the world’s most toxic substances and the “weaponized” forms are believed to have been used in several high profile public attacks, Bahr said. He notes, however, that the anticholinesterase toxin to be used for the new study is less potent than a nerve agent, and the lab will only need a small amount for the brain slice study. He adds that it is a dangerous chemical, as are many of the chemicals used in his neuroscience lab to study the brain.
“This is important research for the Army,” Bahr said. “Some of the symptoms of exposure to low doses of anticholinesterases are headaches, memory loss and psychiatric effects.”
The lab will also look at glial cells, which comprise 60 percent of the brain’s mass and help maintain the normal functioning of neurons. UNCP scientists will also look for links to Alzheimer’s disease.
“The study of glia is a rather new field, and there is not enough knowledge of their function,” Bahr said. “We want to see how glial cells are involved in reacting to and recovering from exposure to toxins.”
The lab will expose brain slices taken from rats to low doses of anticholinesterase and look at the tissue using its laser-scanning Nikon C2+ Confocal Microscopy System.
“With both grants, TBI and neurotoxins, we plan to study if there is an increase in the risk for Alzheimer-type cellular changes that can be experimentally induced in the lab,” Bahr said.
As the neurotoxin study gears up, the 1-year-old traumatic brain injury program is moving forward, Bahr said.
Scott Bigelow is the public information officer for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.