A UBC professor of ophthalmology has been named to Canada’s highest civilian honour.

Dr. Max Cynader, director of the Brain Research Centre at the University of British Columbia Hospital, was appointed to the Order of Canada in December.

“I think the award at some level is to the field of brain research,” he said. “Some of society’s biggest problems over the next 50 years are going to be understanding how the brain works.”

Cynader specializes in brain plasticity research — studying how the brain responds to challenges and stimuli. It’s vital to understanding brain conditions and functions as diverse as Alzheimer’s, strokes, dys­lexia, fetal alcohol syndrome, vision and the ability to learn language as a child.

“It’s neurons that fire together, wire together,” Cynader said, offering a brain plasticity slogan. “And what I’ve tried to do is understand the molecular mechanisms by which that works.”

Cynader’s research nearly rocketed him into space.

He applied to the Canadian space program in the mid-’80s because his research could help astronauts overcome the intense nausea they feel in space, he said.

He made it to the short list, but no further.

Cynader had better luck in the mid-’90s when he co-founded NeuroVir, a Vancouver-based biotech company that developed a treatment for brain cancer based on a virus that can destroy targeted cells. NeuroVir was bought by a German company for $140 million and the treatment is now in the late stages of clinical testing, he said.

Cynader’s life outside of brain research revolves around his wife and three kids and tennis.

Chris Crossfield, his co-worker for the past eight years and managing director of the Brain Research Centre, chooses Cynader’s goal to reach the Wimbledon seniors final as the most telling example of his personality.

“It comes back to his all-round capacities,” he said, and launched into a list of the accomplishments of the almost-astronaut, entrepreneur, researcher and professor.