O. Max Gardner Award: Dr. Ben Bahr

UNC-Pembroke's Dr. Ben Bahr won the UNC System's Oliver Max Gardner award for research findings that could slow or reverse Alzheimer's disease.

PEMBROKE — According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and by the year 2050, this number could rise as high as 16 million. 

Dr. Ben Bahr of UNC-Pembroke has dedicated years of research to studying such diseases as Alzheimer's and has been working diligently to find some answers. 

“There’s many types of dementia; Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia but there’s Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS ... The list is too long, affecting too many people so we’d like to know exactly how the brain works so we can know more about how memory disorders can occur,” says Bahr, who is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. 

The research that Bahr has been working on for the last two decades involves a new class of drugs that can reverse the kind of things that you see in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. He and his research team have found that exercise enhances the same enzyme that these drugs enhance.

“It’s an enzyme called cathepsin B and they’ve shown it in monkeys and humans, and the amount of cathepsin B in the body correlates with memory," says Bahr. "So even the director of NIH pointed to a study done by UNC-Pembroke, my lab, showing that that enzyme is probably a very good target to try to prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease.” 

Bahr takes a team approach by working with others like researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, which helps increase their footprint of research capabilities. The goal is to get their research exposed to more scientists in an effort to encourage collaboration.

This approach appears to be working, as Bahr has already been contacted by researchers from around the country who want to look at the questions his lab is answering. 

“I got a call one day from somebody in Research Triangle Park at the Army research office. They needed somebody to test their ideas about military blast exposures on brain tissue," Bahr says. His lab happens to be one of the few labs out there that can maintain slices of brain tissue in a dish. "We wanted to ask the question: What happens to brain tissue when it’s in a survivable blast?"

They took the brain tissue from Pembroke to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where explosive experts placed it in a chamber and set off C4 explosives. "We discovered very subtle changes to the synaptic integrity that might explain behavioral changes in a person. When the doctors look at someone, they don’t see obvious brain damage. So, there could be more subtle changes to the synaptic circuitry that could explain memory problems and behavioral changes,” says Bahr. 

UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Dr. Robin Gary Cummings appreciates the fact that out of all the places Bahr could have gone, he chose to bring his talents to Robeson County. “Dr. Bahr could have gone anywhere. His research is ground-breaking; it has incredible potential to impact millions of lives in future, yet he comes to a small, largely minority serving institution here in the middle of southeast North Carolina to conduct his research," Cummings says. "That says a lot about him. When you see him interacting with his students you realize this man’s heart is really the heart of an educator. He’s a researcher, he’s a scientist, he’s a faculty member but at his very heart, it’s about the student. And I admire that about him.” 

Bahr admits that he’s like a little kid when it comes to brain research and knows that there’s a lot more work to be done.

“I tell students in the lab to fire up your creativity cause it’s gonna take everybody’s ideas of chipping away to solve this problem. Just like my dad was part of the huge group of engineers and mechanics that was part of the space program that got people walking on the moon, it’s going to take just as many, if not more, scientists to continue working to solve this terrible disease of Alzheimer’s because the brain is just as complicated, if not more, than the universe.”

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