Grant to boost UNCP-Army research on traumatic brain injury


Dr. Ben Bahr confers with researcher Dr. Marquitta Smith, seated, and lab manager Heather Romine.

Dr. Ben Bahr confers with researcher Dr. Marquitta Smith, seated, and lab manager Heather Romine.


UNC Pembroke and Army scientists are in the hunt to solve the puzzle of traumatic brain injury (TBI). 

UNCP received notice in late December of a $276,427 grant from the Army Research Office that will boost the capabilities of Dr. Ben Bahr’s biotechnology laboratory at the university. Effective on February 1, the grant will allow purchase of a laser-scanning Nikon C2+ Confocal Microscopy System that will peer deep into brain tissue and record signs of injury. 

The grant obtained by UNCP was from the Department of Defense (DoD) Research and Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Minority-Serving Institutions (HBCU-MI). The program aims to enhance HBCU-MI capabilities in scientific and engineering disciplines critical to national security. It also encourages greater participation by underrepresented minority trainees in DoD programs and works to increase the number of minority students graduating with degrees in science and technology. 

Dr. Bahr, UNCP’s William C. Friday Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, studies neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and TBI. He has a patent pending for the use of unique chemical compounds to reduce protein accumulation events that disrupt neurons in the brain. 

Dr. Frederick Gregory, the program manager for neurophysiology and cognitive neuroscience at the Army Research Office in Research Triangle Park, N.C. said that his program’s mission is to uncover fundamental biological mechanisms involved in human cognition and understand how damage to brain cells leads to decrement in mental abilities. This knowledge can help create new strategies for preventing injury to the brain of soldiers, athletes and anyone that would be subjected to a head trauma. 

The new high-powered confocal microscopy system goes hand in hand with an earlier Army Research Office grant of $399,000 that brought an additional research scientist into the UNCP lab (for three years). As a result, the Bahr lab is working with Army scientists at the Aberdeen Proving Ground to better understand blast-induced TBI. 

“The Army is very eager to understand this type of trauma, so it can be managed and prevented,” Dr. Bahr said. “They are also interested to learn if the risk of TBI increases with age.” 

The Pembroke lab has partnered with the Army’s research program and is providing entire brain slices for testing. The confocal microscope allows Dr. Bahr’s lab to look for subtle signs of injury after exposing it to trauma in the Army lab. 

“Each neuron in the brain interacts with a thousand other neurons, and that incredible density makes the brain vulnerable to this type of injury,” Dr. Bahr said. “It is the collaboration of experts that makes this project worthwhile.” 

TBI has been the topic in intense interest because of the number of blast injuries soldiers received during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. It is also a topic of intense interest in contact sports. 

At the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, brain slices are submerged in water tanks and subjected to simulated explosions. Dr. Marquitta Smith, UNCP’s new postdoctoral research scientist, delivers the brain samples and returns with them to be examined in Pembroke. The new confocal microscopy system will take her investigation to the subcellular and synaptic levels of analysis. 

UNCP is a good fit for the Army’s basic research program, Dr. Gregory said. “Dr. Bahr’s research addresses a complicated problem and relies upon a diverse group of researchers to answer them. Their unique approach may help uncover new biological mechanisms that will be important for improving our fundamental knowledge of blast-induced damage to the brain and, ultimately, lessen the healthcare impact of head trauma on society.” 

The new tool is an important upgrade for the UNCP lab, and TBI is a new direction for Dr. Bahr’s research into neurodegenerative diseases. 

“We’re looking for funding for the lab, and this grant will give us the newest technology,” Bahr said. “The Army is pleased that we are helping them, and we are happy to use confocal microscopy for TBI research and to train our students. Several other UNCP faculty members have indicated an interest in it for their research. 

“This important tool enhances our capabilities,” Dr. Bahr said. “Also, having experience with confocal microscopy looks good on a student resume as he or she applies to graduate school.”