Davide Momi, from Bastia Umbra to Stanford to study depression

The Umbrian researcher has been living in California for six months where he works on non-invasive stimulation for the treatment of depression. “I feel like a bit of a brain on the run.”

When I read up on him to prepare for the interview I immediately realized that I would not find myself in front of the classic scientist. Not that there is a written law that classifies the typical scientist, of course, but that Davide Momi (34 years old), originally from Bastia Umbra, would not have been the prototype of the laboratory mouse. I expected it and the video interview made it clear to me. he confirmed. «Everyone tells me that. I take it as a compliment (laughs). In fact, in some contexts they pointed out to me that my tattoos and earrings were inappropriate.”
The Umbrian researcher was chosen by Stanford University to coordinate a study on enhancing the effectiveness of magnetic stimulation in depression, and has been living in California for six months. A brain who fled to study American brains, but who brought with him (even on his skin) his affections. During our chat he told us his story, his dreams and his support for the Portella district.

Davide Momi

Davide, what is your relationship with Umbria?

Umbria is my home. My family lives in Umbria and I go back as soon as I can. I have it right on my skin: I have a tattoo under my collarbone with the coordinates of my home (laughs). Bastia is the place where I grew up and it means a lot to me; unfortunately on a work level, for what I do, there are no prospects. Obviously I would like to return but I don’t see how it can be possible, remaining in my sector.

Starting from Bastia Umbra, how do you get to Stanford University?

It’s a mix of luck and study. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but there is also work, study and many sacrifices. I feel very lucky because I had the opportunity, perhaps even more than I deserved. It all started with the three-year degree in Psychological Sciences and Techniques at the University of Perugia, for the master’s degree in Neuroscience I moved to the University of Bologna, and then went to the University of Siena for studies. In 2016 I moved to the United States to Harvard Medical School: it was the first piece of the opportunities obtained from Umbria to the USA, passing through Toronto. I was called to carry out a study on how to improve the effectiveness of non-invasive magnetic stimulation for the treatment of depression. During my doctorate I had the opportunity to investigate this topic using different approaches, such as magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalogram: I carried out a series of studies published in international newspapers demonstrating that the signal induced by stimulation can be predicted. I then moved to the University of Toronto where I expanded my skills to include computational neuroscience which uses mathematical models to simulate brain functioning. From there I won a Canadian fund that I wrote in collaboration with Stanford University and so, six months ago, I moved to the Bay Area. In summary, my laboratory focuses primarily on optimizing non-invasive stimulation for the treatment of major depression, which affects approximately 21 million adults in the United States (8.3%).

Explain better to us mere mortals what you actually do…

It’s not astrophysics! Now I’ll explain. Depression today is generally treated with pharmacological therapy; the alternative is to intervene through transcranial stimulation. In essence, a figure-8-shaped coil releases a magnetic field with which it is possible to stimulate the neurons that are under the magnetic field it generates. This treatment has a non-invasive impact – in fact it is called non-invasive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation – it is safe and has been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). The problem is that it is not effective on all people. In fact, my job is to use the data that comes from neuroimaging to build computer-based mathematical models and calibrate the stimulation parameters to promote its greater effectiveness.

So could this lead to healing or improvement without the use of drugs?

Exact. There is a percentage of patients who improve or who, after 1-2 years, have a reduction in symptoms. However, as I was saying, we must also deal with those who do not respond to therapy, and ask ourselves why it is not effective? How can we improve? That’s mostly what I do here.

How long will you stay in California?

I actually don’t know. They asked me to stay, but I also have offers to work elsewhere, I’m deciding. Formally I will remain here until the end of the year. We will see!

You are what they call “a brain on the run”: do you feel like it? Have you actually fled Italy?

I feel a little like it. There have been, and are, job opportunities in Italy too, but the conditions are lacking especially when one is used to certain standards. So yes, I feel like a brain drain. Returning to Italy would be nice, but I still see the future abroad.

And what do you hope for your future?

I really like working on data, having my hands in the dough. I would like my own team of students, train them and train with them, and stay in the study of data, which is what excites me most. Asking yourself a question, creating a hypothesis and responding to that hypothesis is fascinating: I realize that it is difficult to explain to those who are not on the inside, but I find it very stimulating. I would also like to open my own laboratory and start clinical trials; I don’t even disdain a career in the NeuroTech industry, where I would like to be able to contribute intellectually in order to have a concrete impact on the lives of patients.

What would you recommend to a boy/girl who would like to start your professional career?

My advice is not to set limits, work hard and remain intact with strong values ​​because, in the academic field, the higher you go the more you come across particular dynamics. It’s also important to have fun, there must always be a basis of fun in what you do, otherwise it’s difficult to resist.

Did you bring something from home without which you would never have left?

I brought my basketball shoes and gymnastics rings. I could have bought them here, but I’m very fond of these and they had to come with me.

Speaking of Bastia Umbra: do you follow the Palio? What neighborhood are you from?

Yes, I follow him and I care a lot about him. I’m from Portella. I like the environment and the whole atmosphere that is created in those days, regardless of the result. In 2022 I was at home and I experienced it as a protagonist.

What’s a typical day like for you in California? What do you do when you leave the lab?

The beauty of academic life is that there is no typical day, everything is very flexible. However, I prefer to have a routine: in the morning I go to the campus laboratory and do my work and my meetings. In my free time I play various sports (basketball, gymnastics): a campus like Stanford offers many possibilities and activities to do. I really like being outdoors and from a naturalistic point of view California has a lot to offer; the city of San Francisco is constantly buzzing: I visit museums, go to concerts, sporting events. And of course I go out with my friends.

Do you hang out with other Italians?

Yes, on Thursday evenings we have Italian evening and cook Italian.

Is there something that unites California and our region?

Wine comes to mind. It’s not Sagrantino, but it’s not bad!

Looking at you, you are not exactly the prototype of the scientist…

Everyone tells me that. I take it as a compliment (laughs). In fact, in some contexts they pointed out to me that my tattoos and earrings were not appropriate for a hospital. On the contrary, when I have to relate to students with this aspect of mine, a very confidential and streamlined relationship is immediately created regardless of roles.

To conclude: what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Umbria…

Affections: family and historical friends with whom I grew up.

Translation made by an automatic tool