Dr. Benedict C. Albensi:
Understanding the Brain
Inspiration from an older generation
Ever since Dr. Benedict Albensi was interested in science, he was fascinated by the brain.
“I was interested at first in the human mind and memory, how memories are formed and enhanced,” says Albensi, Principal Investigator at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre’s Synaptic Plasticity and Cellular Memory Dysfunction Lab.
A personal connection
It was a later family experience that turned his attention more sharply on dementia and Alzheimer’s research. “I watched my aunt struggle with her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years,” says Albensi. “It was not a pretty sight. It was very taxing on her as a caregiver. The sad irony of her story is that after her husband died, she developed dementia and had to be institutionalized. When you see it first hand, you see how serious it is, and you see that something has to be done.”
Mitochondria and Alzheimer’s
As a Principal Investigator at St. Boniface Research Centre, Dr. Albensi’s work focuses on two areas: trying to understand the biological basis on normal memory; and Alzheimer’s research, where he and his team are trying to uncover whether dysfunctional mitochondria could be a major culprit behind Alzheimer’s disease. Mitochondria are the part of the cell that releases energy. If they cease to do their job, Alzheimer’s disease can set in. The St. B team is testing how the mitochondria can be protected. Early results suggest that creatine might be part of the solution.
Creatine and memory
“Creatine has been used over the years by body-builders to quickly enhance muscle mass. And it has been studied recently in Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease with some positive results, especially when it comes to enhancing memory,” says Albensi. “We have started testing it over the last couple of years in our animal models of Alzheimer’s to see if we can improve mitochondrial function with creatine.”
Albensi and company are also looking at the long-term impacts of traumatic brain injuries – like concussions from sports – might influence Alzheimer’s later in life. Their work continues to uncover the mysteries of the brain and shine a light on possible ways to address Alzheimer’s. The work is sometimes slow and, like all research, requires a tolerance for disappointment. (Paraphrasing Thomas Edison, Albensi says there’s no such thing as failure – you just sometimes discover new ways that something doesn’t work.)
Along with patience, Albensi says that a sound work ethic drives the research process. Hard work is a value he inherited from a special couple who inspired his success.
Albensi’s path: manual labour, photography, and, finally, science
Albensi’s parents were divorced when he was nine-years-old and growing up in southwest Chicago. So, the youngster moved in with his grandparents. They were an energetic, loving couple who lived to the ages of 91 and 90 – and then died two days apart.
“My grandfather went to school until the fourth grade and then went to work, and my grandmother went until the sixth grade before she went to work,” says Albensi. “My grandparents didn’t influence me to become a scientist, but they did influence me to work hard.”
After graduating high school, Albensi went to New Jersey – where he was born – to spend time with his extended family and figure out what to do next. He took a job at a grocery store and other odd jobs and some manual labour, but didn’t feel like that was a long-term plan. So, it was back to Chicago and a stint at Columbia College where he studied art and photography – but that also wasn’t the ideal path for Albensi.
“Something was missing,” he says. “I knew I had a passion for science so I decided to get back to that.”
Albensi enrolled at the University of Oregon where he earned his Bachelor’s degree and then earned his Master’s degree at California State University (Sonoma). He later got his PhD at the University of Utah.
In between his Master’s and his PhD, Albensi took a position with Natural Product Sciences, a small bio-tech company started by two academics passionate about research and bringing excellent health products to market. It was Albensi’s first experience with hands-on research, as he worked with molecules from spider venom as a potential treatment for problems with the central nervous system.
“It was exciting,” says Albensi of the lab experience. “It was my first exposure to industrial science and understanding the link between industry and academia.”
Albensi sees the connection between science and business as an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to moving the development of new drugs forward, but admits that some scientists in the world “have mixed feelings about industrial research. Some folks might think there’s a dark side with ‘big pharma’ but the pharmaceutical companies bring drugs to market.”
North America’s best drivers
Albensi is grateful for the generosity of Winnipeggers in supporting his work and that of his colleagues. “You can’t generate evidence-based solutions without research,” says Albensi, “and the financial support we get from private donors is huge. The generosity of Winnipeggers is great!”
This transplanted American is also impressed by the character of the people here. “Winnipeggers are the friendliest and warmest people I have ever met,” says Albensi. “And – you might not believe me when I say this – but the drivers here are better than any other place I’ve seen in North America.”
To learn more about Dr. Albensi’s research visit www.sbrc.ca/albensi