Dr. Kafui Dzirasa: Repairing Brain Circuits to Treat Depression and Autism

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The symptoms of psychiatric illnesses appear to arise when malfunctions in a person’s genes cause brain circuits to lose their ability to work together. In healthy mental functioning, different brain regions communicate through circuits, and synchronous rhythms of electrical activity manifest across the brain during these circuit connections. Scientists have worked to deepen our understanding of these phenomena in recent years and research technologies have recently reached a critical nexus for a potential therapeutic leap. The discovery of optogenetics has enabled scientists to use light to control the firing of specific classes of neurons within a circuit, and neuroelectrical recording has been refined to discern the precise rhythms that allow circuit synchrony to take place. And now, a talented scientist is using these novel technologies to come up with some amazing advances, including a prototype “brain pace maker” that may soon be used to treat depression and other brain illnesses.

Kafui Dzirasa, M.D., Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, and recipient of a 2013 One Mind / Janssen Rising Star Translational Research Award. Since his initial proposal, he has applied optogenetics and neuroelectrical monitoring in freely behaving mice toward three aims:

1. To understand the neuroelectrical basis for cognitive and emotional behavior in healthy mice.

2. To compare these healthy behavior/circuit-synchrony associations with those that appear in genetically engineered mouse models of psychiatric disease.

3. To restore healthy synchrony to the relevant circuits in the disease model mice (and, ideally, healthy behavior) by developing and testing a closed-loop neurostimulation device, i.e. “a pacemaker for the brain”.

These studies have started to pay off in a big way.

As Dr. Dzirasa says of his work in 2016, “We have discovered how the brain synchronizes information across reward and fear circuits to induce stress related behavior. We have also showed that this process can be coordinated by the medial prefrontal cortex. This brain area is both central to executive control and altered in depression.”

Using this knowledge, Dzirasa says, “We have developed a prototype brain pace maker that optogenetically stimulates the brain based on ongoing activity generated by the brain. This method is the subject of a US provisional patent application.” Dzirasa’s lab has gone on to show that this stimulation method can be used to induce resilience in a mouse model of depression.

Also in 2016, Dzirasa’s lab has continued to chart the patterns of electrical activity in the brain that underlie complex social behavior. The team’s understanding has grown sufficiently to begin to build another brain pacemaker prototype to treat social deficits in a mouse model of autism.

We at One Mind are thrilled at the Dzirasa lab’s advances in translating complex neurobiological discoveries into the precursors to wholly original treatments for serious brain illness. The NIH must feel the same way-we are proud to report that this work has earned Dr. Dzirasa’s team a major federal grant to expand this research. Dr. Dzirasa’s studies have the potential to enhance the lives of millions of people struggling worldwide, and we thank our contributors for enabling us to support his original work.

Watch Dr. Dzirasa’s talk at One Mind’s 2013 Music Festival for Mental Health:

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