UNCP Lab to Study Neurotoxins for the Army

CBRN Decontamination Tech EvaluationsThe William C. Friday Laboratory at COMtech 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 neurotoxins and the brain.

Last year, the University of North Carolina Pembroke (UNCP) received two DoD 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, TBI and seizure events. “The Army is interested in the effects of toxins on the brain, specifically anticholinesterase nerve agents,” Dr. 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,” Dr. Bahr said. “Some of the symptoms of exposure to low doses of anticholinesterases are headaches, memory loss and psychiatric effects.” 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,” Dr. Bahr said. As the neurotoxin study gears up, the one-year-old TBI program is moving forward, Dr. Bahr said. Research scientist Dr. Marquitta Smith will present a paper this fall to the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago.

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