Member Spotlight: Andrew Russo, PhD

As our August Member Spotlight, Russo shares his passion for research and his connection to migraine 

Our August member spotlight is Andrew Russo, PhD, a member of the American Headache Society. Russo’s dedication to research has helped change the headache field’s understanding of CGRP gene regulation. 

An AHS member since 2012, Russo is a Professor of Molecular Physiology, Biophysics and Neurology at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on migraine prevention, treatment and understanding its debilitating effects. “As a scientist, I am intrigued as to why a person living with a migraine brain is more sensitive to sensory input,” says Russo. “I think that the migraine brain may give us clues as to how we normally filter and process information.”

“I view migraine and headache disorders as the brain using pain to grab a person’s attention,” says Russo. “Pain is a protective response that occurs when the brain is receiving too much sensory input for it to handle. As a result, the headache forces a person to reduce sensory input and allow the brain to reset.”

Developing an Interest in Headache Medicine

In his childhood, Russo remembers how his mother kept her room dark and quiet. “As a child, I never questioned it, but now I know why,” Russo says. “My mom has migraine and so do two of my daughters. While that was not the reason I chose to study migraine, it is inspiring to know my research may help them.”

Russo first became interested in headache medicine when a student in his lab wanted to study serotonin autoreceptors on neural-like cells used in CGRP gene regulation. The activation of those receptors by sumatriptan lowered CGRP levels in patients with migraine and coincided with pain relief.

To test CGRP’s connection to migraine, Russo and research partner Paul Durham, PhD, developed a mouse behavioral assay for photophobia. Their model used a clinical observation by Jes Olesen, MD, PhD, that CGRP injections caused severe headaches similar to migraine. This only occurred, however, in people with migraine. In contrast, the injection caused only a mild headache in people not susceptible to migraine.

“I reasoned that those with migraine must be sensitized to CGRP,” Russo said. “Being a biochemist, I figured the most likely cause of sensitization would be increased receptors. This was the inspiration for our development of genetically engineered mice with increased CGRP receptors to study how CGRP causes migraine symptoms.”

Advancing Research

In the decades since Russo first examined CGRP receptors, treatment evolved to include recently FDA approved anti-CGRP migraine treatments. “I like to think that our basic science work on CGRP over the past 30 years helped build the foundation for new CGRP-based therapeutics for migraine,” said Russo.

As the leader of the Russo Lab of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Iowa, Russo is leading the next generation of researchers. “Over the years, the most rewarding aspects of my career have been mentoring people in the lab as they make their discoveries and the feedback from patients appreciating the efforts we are making in the lab to help them,” Russo said.


About Andrew Russo

Name: Andrew Russo, PhD

AHS Membership: Member since 2012

Primary: Professor of Molecular Physiology, Biophysics and Neurology at the University of Iowa

Quote: “The more I study migraine, the more it seems clear that it is a neurological disorder. Despite advances in public education, many people still do not understand that migraine is more than just a bad headache or appreciate how disabling it is to those who live with it.”

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