Daniela Kaufer is searching for ways to make human brains more resilient

August 31, 2023

Daniela Kaufer is a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley who investigates brain adaptability and deterioration in the face of stress and neurological trauma. In 2021, Professor Kaufer co-authored an article in Scientific American titled “Damage to a Protective Shield around the Brain May Lead to Alzheimer’s and Other Diseases.” The article elevated in scientific and public health circles the importance of the blood-brain barrier, a protective shield that prevents blood from harming sensitive brain functions, and revealed potential rejuvenating treatments to explore.

Professor Kaufer recently updated her article for a special edition of Scientific American that features the publication’s most influential articles on brain research. She explained to UC Berkeley writer Alexander Rony what has changed in the past few years and where the research is going.

Daniela Kaufer rests her chin on her hand with two brain models lying on a table to her side.

Alexander Rony: How has our understanding of the blood-brain barrier evolved since you published your original article in Scientific American?

Daniela Kaufer: Our understanding is constantly evolving to include the more nuanced and complex nature of the blood-brain barrier. If, in the past, we thought of it as existing in two states — open or closed — we now know that multiple mechanisms control the passage from blood to the brain, and we are starting to understand how each is regulated and manipulated. Symptoms will be different depending on the brain area and the affected mechanism. This further pushes us to think about precision medicine — a future in which we will be able to diagnose and treat an individual based on their unique situation.

What attracted you to research the blood-brain barrier?

This research amalgamates two facets of biology that I find fascinating: brain plasticity and resilience. There are open questions, like how can exposure to stress motivate and enhance performance for some people, but induce anxiety and impede performance in others? How do some football players endure concussions and continue with peak performance while others have long-lasting, sometimes lifelong neurological consequences? Which mechanisms underlie the vast differences in cognitive performance in older individuals?

Historically, research focused on the drivers of disease under the assumption that resilient individuals escape some of the bad things that stress induces in the brains of more susceptible individuals. Our findings led us to consider that susceptible individuals lack some of the adaptations that occur in the resilient brain.

One of the most exciting findings is that, when we repaired the blood-brain barrier in aged mice, we revealed an innate capacity of the aged brain to restore its youthful function. This resilience mechanism was obscured by the inflammatory fog created by blood molecules that had invaded the brain environment. I am very optimistic our findings will offer a completely different avenue for treatment.

Where is the research currently headed around the blood-brain barrier?

Our current research aims to unlock mechanisms underlying brain resilience. In the lab, we are focusing our current research on several exciting, collaborative projects:

  • Identifying the molecular signatures of brain gene expression in stress-resilient mice in collaboration with Professor Peter Sudmant in integrative biology;
  • Identifying the connection of degrading circadian rhythms (the body’s internal, 24-hour clock) to blood-brain barrier function and age-associated cognitive decline with Professor Lance Kriegsfeld in psychology and integrative biology;
  • And examining whether and how the blood-brain barrier may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease with Professor Bill Jagust in public health.

In all of these lines of research, we aim to develop strategies that protect against and ameliorate age-associated neurodegeneration.

Beyond the lab, we are developing a plan to establish a pioneering center for the interdisciplinary research of resilience that will combine artificial intelligence and neuroscience. This center would serve as a hub for researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders from different disciplines and sectors to collaborate on research projects, share data and resources, and develop innovative interventions that can address the challenges of resilience in a holistic and sustainable way.