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The genetic mechanisms of cluster headache

Project details

Clarissa Rocca
University College London
Research area
Cluster headache
Funding type
PhD studentship
Awarded in
March 2021


Clarissa Rocca was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2021 to enable her to pursue research into the genetics of cluster headache.

With an undergraduate degree in Biotechnology and a Master's in the Genetics of human disease, Clarissa worked as a Research Technician on the 100,000 Genomes Project at UCL Institute of Neurology before embarking on her PhD.

This experience gives her an excellent grounding in the techniques needed to pursue this ambitious and technically challenging PhD, which should further advance knowledge of the genetics underpinning cluster headache.

About cluster headache

Cluster headache (CH) is a rare headache disorder, characterised by recurring bouts of excruciating headaches on one side of the head. It has been described as one of the most painful conditions known to man, with the intensity of the pain often reported to give rise to suicidal thoughts.

It is a condition that impacts very heavily on the lives of patients. The all-consuming pain and unpredictability of attacks can make it hard to carry on a normal life. There are a number of different treatments that aim either to stop the pain during an attack or to stop the onset of attacks during a cluster, but there is no cure.

Read more: About cluster headache

What causes cluster headache? 

The causes of CH are unknown. This severely limits our understanding of the disease and the development of effective treatments. In order to work towards a cure, we first need to understand more about the underlying causes.

People with close relatives with CH have an increased risk of developing it themselves, suggesting an underlying genetic cause. During her MSc, Clarissa was involved in a study that identified two promising CH genes. During her PhD, she will build on this work – drawing on large national and international genetic databases to further understand the roles of these two genes in CH, and work out how they cause the symptoms associated with the disorder. Ultimately she aims to establish whether it is possible to block the cascade of events that leads to the debilitating symptoms.


Cluster headache is a complex and debilitating condition causing excruciating pain. It has a terrible impact on the lives of those affected and the lack of effective treatments limits what can be done to help patients.

By understanding more about the genetic causes, and how these give rise to the symptoms of cluster headache, Clarissa’s work has the potential to lead to new and improved treatments. This would be a tremendous step forward for the future management of CH.

Equally important, through this PhD studentship, we are nurturing the development of a promising young researcher who we hope will go on to develop a long and illustrious career in this under-researched and under-resourced field.

Related projects

Headache and facial pain is one of our current research priorities, reflecting the large unmet need in this area. Our aim is to fund research to advance understanding of the underlying causes and mechanisms of headache and facial pain, and help advance diagnosis and treatment.

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