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

Dr. Dzirasa's team has developed a prototype "brain pacemaker" that can make mice modeling depression resilient to stress.

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 Institute / 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 Institute 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 Institute's 2013 Music Festival for Mental Health:

"One Mind Institute, thank you again for funding CAPPS/ABBRC. Our daughter, Anna, participated in the program 2012-2013 and just received her final assessment. While this research helps others, know how much we appreciated participating with such genuinely dedicated people (very well selected to work with adolescents). It was very helpful for us as well, and provides us with even more hope. We're so impressed with the program."
"The support of One Mind Institute has been absolutely essential to all of the psychosis prediction and prevention efforts of CAPPS and the NAPLS. On behalf of the patients and families who have received high quality clinical services in our program regardless of their ability to pay, and on behalf of the numerous dedicated members of our research and clinical treatment teams, I am so incredibly grateful for One Mind Institute’s generous contributions. On a personal note, it is very inspiring to see the huge gains made for mental health research and awareness over the past several years, which have been sparked in large part by the efforts of the Staglin family."
"From the moment I found One Mind Institute and met the amazing Staglin family I knew that my advocacy would grow by leaps and bounds. Through their dedication and commitment I found a community of brilliant scientists, passionate philanthropists, music lovers and a new mental health family to call my own. I cherish the work One Mind Institute does every day to advance the research on brain disorders, to increase the awareness around mental illness and mental health and to create a community of love and support for advocates everywhere. I would not be the person I am today without the inspiration One Mind Institute has provided me."
"When I heard of the groundbreaking work the Staglins were doing through their organization One Mind Institute, such as research into preventing schizophrenia from ever occurring, I hoped to meet them. When I did I was amazed by their non-stop energy and complete devotion to the cause. But most of all, I was moved by their sincere desire to share ideas with people from all backgrounds and fields. As I continue to create films to inspire empathy for those with mental illness, I remain inspired by the Staglins and what One Mind Institute has done to transform mental health research and improve lives. "
"As a family member of someone living with schizoaffective disorder, I am proud to support One Mind Institute’s profoundly important work. One Mind Institute allows those touched in some way by psychiatric illness to take action and work toward solutions by helping to spur early stage research. One Mind Institute’s audacious mission to find a cure for psychiatric illness in one generation is what it will take to make meaningful progress, and holds the promise of changing millions of lives around the globe. "
"One Mind Institute has distinguished itself as a leader in the fight against brain disease. One Mind Institute’s vision of a world without mental illness seems beyond reach only to those who have not seen firsthand the intensity of One Mind Institute’s dedication and focus. These folks are not giving up until they’ve won. The Saks Institute is delighted to be One Mind Institute’s partner in the fight."
"One Mind Institute is an organization equal parts compassion and science. A critical component of their work is advocacy and voice for millions of people who live with mental illnesses. Equally important is the incredible efforts they provide to further research in learning more about the brain and identifying effective treatments for brain diseases. One Mind Institute is a leader in the field of mental illness!"
"Having struggled with schizophrenia since a young woman, I am deeply grateful for what One Mind Institute does. One Mind Institute’s unwavering commitment to support research is an inspiration to those of us who long for the day when a cure for serious mental illness is found. I think of One Mind Institute as a good friend and kindly mentor who has taken up my cause and fights for my mental health each and every day."

Stay Connected

Sign up and receive e-newsletters and more

One Mind Institute is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Tax ID # 68-0359707