One out of three people who suffers with migraines experiences migraines with aura. Diana Borrego, a psychology major who conducts research at FIU’s Neuronal Mass Dynamics Lab, is one of them. An aura is a short-lived sensory experience, such as tingling sensations over the body or flashes of light, that occurs before or during the actual migraine.
Under the supervision of Jorge Riera, graduate director and associate professor in the College of Engineering & Computing’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Borrego is researching these types of headaches, known as cortical spreading depression. They begin at the back of the head and slowly move forward, lasting approximately 30 to 45 minutes. Once the wave passes, many patients report experiencing sensitivity to light.
“We know there are gene mutations that may be the cause of these ‘tsunami’ migraines,” Riera explains. “Once we understand the mechanism, the next step is to learn how to stop or treat the disorder.”
Borrego’s project with Riera incorporates elements of electrophysiology, which is a branch of physiology that studies the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, and neuroscience. She integrates electrophysiology by conducting tests to evaluate the electrical activity in the brain and track brain wave patterns.
The aura, which is caused by abnormal neuronal activity in a section of the brain, can impact a person’s ability to function. A person may see zig zags and rings in the visual field, spots and flashes of light and sometimes even a reversible and partial deprivation of sight. Borrego typically experiences mild versions of these migraines about three to six times a week and the severe ones once or twice a month, usually triggered by light exposure.
“You become very dizzy, nauseous and your vision gets blurry,” she says. “The worst part is the eye pain. It feels like someone is pulling my eye out with a spoon. As the pain begins to spread, my head starts feeling very loud as if surrounded by a lot of people shouting at the same time.”
When Borrego suffers these migraines, she immediately needs to take painkillers and avoid any exposure to light, including the screen on her smart phone, until the migraine goes away. “I often worry that people think I am faking it to avoid my responsibilities, and that gives me a lot of anxiety,” Borrego confesses.
“Whenever I have symptoms it pretty much cancels the rest of my day. I need to go into a dark room and just wait for it to pass because I can’t be in class or outside, I can’t sit in front of a computer or anything that has a bit of light. They are very intense and often affect my speech as well which is quite frustrating.”
These symptoms influence a lot of her dedication towards research in this particular field. Before Borrego began working in the Neuronal Mass Dynamics Lab, she would participate in all of Riera’s weekly lab meetngs. Riera noticed that she was very committed and highly motivated and so invited her to begin working in the spring of 2016 on multiple research projects.
“I basically live at the lab now and sometimes I spend about nine hours and other times I do not get a chance to see the sun. For that reason, I try to take a break at least once a week,” states Borrego.
One of the reasons Borrego is so driven towards her research and chooses to voluntarily work in the lab for so many hours in a week is because of her passion and personal experience with migraines. “I really want to help in any way that I can. To be able to better understand migraines with auras and find a treatment,” says Borrego. “I love what I do and yes it is a lot of work but it’s my passion, you know? I feel as if everything in my life has led me to this and I want to change the world in the best way that I can. I want to make a difference and whether I experienced migraines or not, I was still going to do this with my life.”
After Borrego graduates, she wants to get into the cognitive neuroscience program at FIU to pursue a Ph.D. She plans to become a professor and lead her very own lab that combines elements of electrophysiology with cognitive neuroscience. “I want to give back to undergraduate students like me some day.” Borrego says of the research opportunities that have come her way. “It is my way of giving back to the world.”