“I don’t believe you can understand diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, until you understand the normally aging brain,” says Carol Barnes.
Barnes directs the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. She is also a University of Arizona Regents’ professor of psychology and neurology and associate director of the BIO5 Institute. She’s been conducting brain related research for more than three decades. Her studies focus on the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored.
"The good news," she says, "is that, for 80 to 90 percent of us, our brains will age normally.”
Barnes became interested in the brain and how age affects it when she was in graduate school in 1971 and her mother asked for advice about what to do with her grandfather, who was wandering off during walks. Barnes began to wonder.
“How do you draw the line between normal aging and an illness worth worrying about?” she says.
Barnes is also interested in developing medicines to help people optimize their memory as they get older.
“With new kinds of methods to target specific cells in the brain, we are on the verge of therapeutics like never before,” she says. Even existing information--including her own findings--are helping older people in many ways, she says. “If you know you are going down a path that is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, you could get to a clinic and see if early treatment can help you. If you are having normal age-related changes, this knowledge will reduce your anxiety to know that it’s to be expected.”
The McKnight Institute is one of four of its kind in the country. It began in 2006 with a $5 million McKnight Brain Research Foundation gift that was matched through funds from several state organizations, including the Arizona’s Alzheimer’s Consortium.