Take Your First Step towards Your Next Step at NYC Clinical Trials for SCI

Dr. Knikou is inviting individuals with spinal cord injuries for non-invasive clinical trials.

Neurophysiologist and researcher Dr. Maria Knikou invites people with spinal cord injuries to apply for non-invasive clinical trials to assess, rehabilitate, and improve motor function and control, while reducing spacsticity. Early trials are promising, many returning for Robotic Gait Training. Stipends and travel reimbursements available.

When we think about spinal cord injuries, thoughts generally turn toward Christopher Reeve who was thrown from his horse during trial events for an equestrian competition in 1995, and Steven McDonald, who was shot three times in 1986 after serving two years as an officer with the New York Police Department. Reeve’s and McDonald’s heroic and visible survival stories brought the severity of spinal cord injuries into the international dialogue.

Today at the College of Staten Island (CSI), Maria Knikou, PhD, is holding clinical trials of her breakthrough research designed to develop effective rehabilitation strategies to improve the walking ability of persons with spinal cord injuries that have affected the function of the central nervous system.

During her ongoing trials, she has recently worked with eight people with spinal cord injuries, including a 20-year-old who fell out of a golf cart and broke his neck nine months ago, and a Midwestern woman who broke her neck. These people, who have been diagnosed with tetraplegia (a spinal cord injury above the first thoracic vertebra or within cervical sections Cervical 1-8) and severe paralysis of the legs, came to CSI to participate in the research trials. After completing four to six weeks of therapy with Dr. Knikou, the patients saw motor function improve, with increased control and reduced spasticity.

According to spinalcord.com, “The spinal cord carries nerve fibers traveling both from the brain to the rest of the body and from the body back to the brain. Those coming from the brain are responsible for voluntary control of muscles. Those traveling toward the brain carry sensation.”

Dr. Knikou working in her lab.

Dr. Knikou’s non-invasive therapy focuses on assessing the signal transfer from the brain to the legs in order to strengthen and enhance that pathway and provide gains in motor function. Patients who undergo the phase one therapy may be eligible for the phase two Robotic Gait Training, designed to further stimulate brain, spinal, and muscular health on a pathway for improved mobility. People who participate in the trials are provided a stipend, and certain expenses may be covered.

Persons who are interested in learning if they are eligible candidates for this unique therapeutic approach should contact Dr. Knikou, Professor of Human Neurophysiology in the Physical Therapy Department of the School of Health Sciences at 718.982.3316 or maria.knikou@csi.cuny.edu. All trials are conducted on the Willowbrook campus of the College of Staten Island in New York City.

“Dr Knikou’s forward-thinking and expertise in human neurophysiology have enabled her to be extremely successful, with ongoing grant support from New York State and other private foundations,” commented Dean Maureen Becker, PhD. “She is one of the leading researchers in the School of Health Sciences at the College of Staten Island and her work, one day, will impact the lives of millions of individuals with spinal cord injury.”

Dr. Knikou’s research project is funded by the New York State Department of Health, Spinal Cord Injury Research Board, under the Project to Accelerate Research Translation (PART) award. She mentors high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral research fellows and junior faculty. Dr. Knikou serves on several editorial boards and has published her research work in high-ranking, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

For details regarding Dr. Knikou’s research visit www.researchgate.net/profile/Maria_Knikou

For more information about the College of Staten Island School of Health Sciences visit www.csi.cuny.edu/schoolofhealthsciences

Caroline Arout goes on to Yale

College of Staten Island alumna Caroline Arout has been accepted for a post-doctoral position with Yale University beginning the summer of 2014.

When Arout began her studies as an undergraduate at CSI in 2003, she claims that she had no intention of moving on to post-graduate work, let alone earning a PhD. She first considered business coursework and later switched to nursing, and while she enjoyed her studies and performed well, she admits that something was missing. “I felt like I was looking to get a degree just for the sake of it, and that if I continued with that mindset, I wouldn’t be happy in the long run. I enjoyed Psychology, so I decided to commit to an education in a field I knew I’d be happy in.”

Arout eventually changed her major to Psychology.

In 2006, she was encouraged by CSI Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department, Dr. John Lawrence, to work in the neuropsychology-focused lab of Dr. Benjamin Kest. After that, the rest came easily.

“I loved neuroscience, I enjoyed working with Dr. Kest and found his work in opioid hyperalgesia (the increased pain sensitivity that results from opioid treatment) fascinating, so that helped make up my mind.” She called working with Dr. Kest “phenomenal” and credits him with sparking her love for neuroscience. “He taught me how to be an independent, confident researcher, to never question myself.”

After finishing her senior year at CSI working in Dr. Kest’s lab and graduating in 2007, Arout applied for and was accepted to Queens College’s General Psychology Master’s program. It was then that she and Dr. Kest started collaborating with CSI Associate Professor of Psychology, Dr. Dan McCloskey, working on her first independent project—researching the molecular basis of morphine hyperalgesia. She continued on to pursue a PhD in Neuropsychology from The City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

“We studied the way morphine works in our brain—the way it affects pain processing,” she said, explaining her second research project that would eventually become her PhD dissertation. “I wanted to find out how receptors in the brain and spinal cord contribute to morphine hyperalgesia.”

After receiving her PhD, Caroline focused her attention on teaching her experimental Psychology 330 class at the College of Staten Island, and began searching for possible post-doctoral positions when she noticed an opportunity at Yale, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She wanted to continue “studying drugs of abuse, how they affect the brain,” she said of the motivations behind her search. “The brain is so mysterious,” she continued. “There is so much we don’t know about it—it’s this bundle of cells that determines every aspect of your life. I am fascinated by how drugs can change it.”

After a short wait, Arout soon found out that she was chosen to work at Yale’s Veteran’s Hospital campus in West Haven, Connecticut this summer. There, she will contribute to clinical trials of treatments for nicotine and alcohol abuse, and she hopes to use her opiate expertise to be able to focus on treatments for veterans who are suffering from chronic pain.

She admitted that she was a little nervous about applying to an Ivy League university. “When I applied, I was intimidated because it was Yale, but it felt really good to find out that they were as excited about me working there as I was—I felt truly validated.”

The advice that she would like to impart on future students is to “never sacrifice your dreams in order to keep up with everyone else’s. What I do matters—it was worth the extra time and effort. CSI and CUNY have some of the best and brightest students and faculty around, there is no reason we shouldn’t do what makes us happy.”


[video] NSF Awards CAREER Grant for Study of How Multiple Brains Work Together

CSI's Dr. Dan McCloskey recently received an $800,000 NSF CAREER grant for his proposed work on animal social behavior.

Dr. Dan McCloskey of the College of Staten Island’s Department of Psychology was recently awarded an $800,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant for his proposed work on animal social behavior.

The NSF CAREER grant is the foundation’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Dr. McCloskey is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island, a senior college of The City University of New York.

Dr. McCloskey’s Career Development Plan proposal focuses on creating a research environment that utilizes computational tools for the collection and analysis of data in two complex systems: animal social behavior and hippocampal neuron activity. Both approaches involve studying a fascinating animal called the naked mole rat, and the grant will help fund the participation of two graduate students and up to four undergraduates on the projects.

Queen of the Naked Mole Rats

Naked mole rats are unique among mammals for a number of reasons including an extremely long life span, an apparent resistance to cancer, and, most importantly, their cooperative breeding system. They are one of only two species of mammals who have a queen who is solely responsible for breeding the entire colony.

The reason that the last point is so important is because since worker naked mole rats do not reproduce, everything they do is for the betterment of the group.  They seem to have no selfish motives.

“The naked mole rat hierarchy is very unique,” said McCloskey. “They act more like ants or bees than other mammals, although many human social networks may operate in a similar way.” Studying the mole rats may help researchers to one day understand why humans act the way they do; if there is such a thing as altruism or if every action has a motive behind it.

Social Behaviors Tracked by Super Computer

The researchers insert tiny trackers into the mole rats and, with the help of the equipment and staff at the CUNY Interdisciplinary High-Performance Computing Center (IHPCC) at CSI, track their movements and interactions and compare siblings with different levels of social behavior.

The IHPCC allows McCloskey to track the behavior of each of more than 100 animals in his colony with high resolution as they navigate their way through a complex system of tubes and cages. Each time an animal passes through a tube with a sensor, the identity, location, and time of that event are stored in a database that receives hundreds of thousands events each day.

Algorithmic software written by CSI Vice President for Technology Systems Dr. Michael Kress and Dr. Susan Imberman of the Computer Science Department creates a history for each animal. The history includes where the animal was, what other animals it was with, and whether it was carrying food, nest material, or a newborn to help other animals in the colony.

Networked Science

The next step of the proposal, which will also make great use of the IHPCC, is to then study the naked mole rats at the level of the neuron.

“We will be working with what is called big data,” said Dr. McCloskey when discussing the IHPCC’s ability to process millions of pieces of data. “One file at the neuronal level can fill up gigs of storage within a minute.”

McCloskey’s “network science” approach will involve graphing each animal/neuron and literally drawing lines between interacting animals/neurons using advanced algorithms to shape the graph. In order to weed out coincidences, the researchers will take samples from millions of events. McCloskey’s team eventually hopes to better understand how interactions between neurons coordinate the animal’s interactions with each other.

Discovery Institute Students Benefit

The NSF CAREER grant will provide funding to recruit two graduate students and up to four undergraduate students for the projects that he will help coordinate with the Discovery Institute. McCloskey, who has been involved with the Discovery Institute for more than two years, believes that taking part of this research will help younger students “understand the bigger picture.” To demonstrate his dedication to the Institute and its students, McCloskey has proposed to set up a Twitter account for each naked mole rat so the students can track their progress in real time, using a computer or a cell phone.

When asked why he was so interested in studying animal social behavior, McCloskey responded that understanding how social networks are formed and modified by experience can help to improve situations where those behaviors are impaired, such as in autism and schizophrenia.

McCloskey acknowledges the importance of his social network, which includes colleagues such as Bruce Goldman of the University of Connecticut and Xiowen Zhang of the Computer Science Department.  He also gives VP Kress and the IHPCC much of the credit. “Without his involvement and that of the IHPCC, this type of study would not have been possible,” he said, commenting on the sheer amount of data that is being tracked in real time. “We know what a single brain can do, the next frontier is understanding how multiple brains work together,” McCloskey said. “Besides,” he concluded,  “It’s really cool to watch them in action.”


Dan McCloskey is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island, a seniorcollege of The City University of New York (CUNY) where he is a member of the Master’s program in Developmental Neuroscience. He holds Doctoral appointments at the CUNY Graduate Center in Neuroscience and Neuropsychology. Dr. McCloskey received his PhD in Biological Psychology from The State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2003. He uses a combination of computationally intensive approaches to study animal behavior, quantitative neuroanatomy, and single-cell and network-level electrophysiology. He has co-authored dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles using these techniques to address issues in epilepsy and autism.