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Nanna MacAulay is fascinated by cerebrospinal fluid: »We are really falling behind in the research«

People — Research has yet to shed light on many parts of the brain. Neurophysiologist Nanna MacAulay has identified the transport pathways for cerebrospinal fluid, and now a large grant is to help her learn more.

Who is she?

Nanna MacAulay is a neurophysiologist and a professor at the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen. Before the end of 2023 she received DKK 20 million from the Lundbeck Foundation for a six-year research project.

»It’s quite an honour,« Nanna MacAulay says to the University Post when we catch up with her by phone.

»The grant is the ultimate seal of approval from Lundbeck. And it gives me the peace of mind to focus on research for six years, where I don’t have to think about applying for other grants and can concentrate on the most important things.«

Nanna MacAulay is a hot shot in her field. She specialises in the biological processes that control the production of cerebrospinal fluids in the brains of humans and mammals. She started out at the molecular level and gradually worked her way up to dealing with the cells in the brain. Now she is focusing on a narrow specialty: Cerebrospinal fluid. Build-up of fluid in the brain needs to be prevented in the case of, say, strokes and blood clots, according to Nanna MacAulay.

The brain is immersed in cerebrospinal fluid in the skull. You can be born with a build-up of fluid in your head, or you can get it in case of illness. Doctors nowadays remove the fluid using the same technique as a plumber. A tube via a hole in the skull sucks out the fluid-filled contents. The method has been used for over 55 years, but how does the fluid actually get into the brain tissue in the first place? This is one of the questions that concerns Nanna MacAulay and her research group.

»Through animal experiments we will try to gain a deeper understanding of things like the network processes that control the production of cerebrospinal fluid – also in connection with diseases. We hope to make progress, because we are really falling behind in the research when it comes to the medical treatment of a build-up of fluid in the head. Something that we technically call hydrocephalus,« says Nanna MacAulay. She adds that the molecular mechanisms that transport fluid in the brain and the regulatory elements that control them have not yet been scientifically mapped out.

Why should I know her?

It is not the first time Nanna MacAulay has made the headlines in science. She has a long record in terms of prizes and grants. She was previously awarded the Ministry of Higher Education and Science’s Elite Research Prize in 2006. In 2012 she got the Independent Research Fund Denmark’s starting grant for promising researchers, Sapere Aude. She also has an LF Scientific Enrichment Prize on her CV, which is awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation. The latter prize is given to a someone who takes – or has taken – the lead in ensuring diversity as a means to create important new results in research.

And Nanna MacAulay has a special focus on diversity:

»I’m looking forward to engaging in exciting research. And I look forward to working with different people who can approach issues from other angles than I can offer myself. I don’t have that much experience with the clinical aspect myself, so it’s very rewarding to work with clinicians.«

What else does she do?

Nanna MacAulay has been a professor at the University of Copenhagen since 2019 and is 51 years old.

She lives in Virum and has two twins aged 17, and one child aged 19. Her partner lives abroad, and when they are together, they go trail running and cross-country skiing, as she herself has been a competitive runner in her younger days.