Kafui Dzirasa

2022 Franklin Institute Laureate Kafui Dzirasa
Life Science
Benjamin Franklin NextGen Award
Duke University Medical Center │ Durham, North Carolina
For studies investigating how stress and other environmental factors affect the brain through genetic and electrochemical mechanisms, which led to important insights into cognitive and emotional function and depressive disorders.

By probing the fundamental neurobiological, genetic, and molecular causes of major depression in a multidisciplinary approach, Kafui Dzirasa is providing fresh insights into mental disorders and devising new ways to treat and perhaps cure them. As a role model and mentor to the next generations of scientists and engineers, he is also a major force for the diversity of the scientific and medical enterprise.

We all know how it feels to be stressed out, but for most of us, it is usually a temporary state. Sometimes, however, ongoing and unrelenting stress can have more lasting effects, changing the actual microstructure of neural circuitry deep within the brain and contributing to serious conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD). For decades, ever since it was identified as a specific psychological malady, various techniques have been used to treat major depression, including psychotherapy, electroshock, and pharmaceuticals. But all these interventions have proved limited, lacking an understanding of the brain mechanisms of a person with MDD. Kafui Dzirasa is striving to understand these brain mechanisms, and to use them to develop better and more effective treatments. 

Dzirasa's approach focuses on understanding MDD at its roots: at the molecular and neurobiological level, in the intricate circuitry and vastly complex interconnections of the brain. Many factors shape the form that brain circuitry takes, including genetics and life experiences, and the particulars of those factors shape an individual's susceptibility to MDD and how they might respond to different treatments. Trained not only as a neurobiologist but also as an engineer and physician, with experience both in the laboratory and in the clinic with real patients, Dzirasa is uniquely equipped to consider questions from a multidisciplinary perspective. 

The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Dzirasa grew up near Baltimore, Maryland, and at first planned on becoming a chemist, studying at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as part of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. He switched gears as an undergraduate and earned a B.S. in chemical engineering, then moved on to graduate work at Duke University, planning to focus on biomechanics and biomedical engineering. A medical school rotation in the state psychiatric hospital changed his mind, and made him realize that he wanted to help those suffering from mental illness more directly than was possible solely in the laboratory. He earned his M.D. in 2009 at Duke University School of Medicine, while also becoming the first African-American student to earn a Ph.D. in neurobiology at Duke in 2007.

His early work centered on mouse models, with his first notable publications describing experiments on the workings of the sleep-wake cycle. By recording electrical activity in multiple brain regions of live mice, he showed that low dopamine levels interfere with REM sleep and that dopamine-mimicking compounds can effectively treat this condition. In this and subsequent research, he took advantage of his engineering background to develop computational algorithms and data analysis techniques to evaluate data and to better integrate it with genetic and pharmacological findings.

Dzirasa had observed, firsthand, the toll of depression and mental illness in his own family, which motivated him to begin his investigations of the neuronal circuitry of depression while doing his residency in psychiatry at Duke University Hospital. He also continued working with mouse models, using genetically engineered mice to explore a new model of depression based on susceptibility to environmental stress. He further developed and refined machine learning methods to analyze large datasets from neurophysiological and neurological research and to examine the possible relationships and causalities among different brain mechanisms and genetic models. Now an associate professor at Duke and an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he continues his groundbreaking interdisciplinary research.

Dzirasa's passion for creative scientific research is matched only by his dedication to public science communication and education. One of his most important endeavors is advancing diversity and inclusivity for historically excluded groups both in neuroscience and in mental health programs and treatment approaches, including the recognition of genetic diversity in neuroscience. His own experiences throughout his career have made him an outstanding mentor to and advocate for underprivileged students and scientists in science and academia.

Kafui Dzirasa’s accomplishments to date promise an exciting future as a scientist and scholar. As a physician, neuroscientist, engineer, and educator, he is a Renaissance man for the 21st century, bringing together different scientific disciplines to forge new directions in all of them. His work is not only providing fresh answers to old questions about the psychological afflictions that have always troubled humankind, it is lighting the path to new ways to ease and heal the suffering caused by those afflictions.