MIGRAINE headaches throb painfully, sometimes triggering nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to sound and light. They can be incapacitating.
Effective treatment may lie in electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, according to Antonios (Andoni) Mourdoukoutas (Macaulay Honors College at City College, ’16). The National Science Foundation awarded him a Graduate Research Fellowship to pursue that hypothesis in doctoral research at UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco. The award, the most prominent for graduate students in the sciences, pays $138,000 over three years.
In 2015 Mourdoukoutas won a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious federal undergraduate award in the STEM fields, partly because of related research with Marom Bikson, professor of biomedical engineering at City’s Grove School of Engineering. His laboratory develops medical devices based on studies of electricity’s effects on the human body.
Electrical stimulation is a hot field. Some researchers focus on the brain, sending direct current through the scalp to painlessly treat conditions like depression, anxiety and chronic pain. Others stimulate the spinal cord, seeking to improve motor function from stroke and other conditions.
Mourdoukoutas focuses on the vagus nerve, which actually is a pair of nerves that run from the brainstem through the neck and down each side of the chest and abdomen. It carries messages to the heart, lungs and digestive tract, as well as to brain areas that control mood, sleep and other functions.
“Working with MRIs [magnetic resonance images], we generate a 3D model of someone’s head and simulate where currents will flow based on electrode placement,” he says.
“I’m looking to treat chronic migraine. The NSF proposal is to test a specific electrode montage that targets the vagus nerve. If this research validates our models, we can move into clinical trials.”
Mourdoukoutas purposely slowed his education, taking five years to earn his B.E. degree, in order to allow more time for research. He believes that decision gave him the time to author publications and build the basis for his awards. He started in Bikson’s lab when he was a sophomore, beginning with paperwork needed to win Food and Drug Administration approval for a device; he had to show his commitment before the professor moved him into research.
He praises years of “endless support” from CCNY’s Honors Center staff and particular support from Bikson, City’s national scholarship coordinator, Jennifer Lutton, and CUNY’s director of student academic awards, James Airozo. ”Without all of them, I would not be here,” Mourdoukoutas says.