Portrait of Dr Stella Koutsikou

Dr Stella Koutsikou

Lecturer of Biological Sciences


Dr Stella Koutsikou graduated with an MSc in Neuroscience (1999) from the University of Edinburgh, she completed her PhD in Physiology (2004) from the University of Bristol, under the supervision of Professor Sally Lawson.

Stella’s initial postdoctoral work at the University of Bristol, with Professor Bridget Lumb and Dr. Frankie MacMillan, focused on midbrain periaqueductal grey (PAG) descending control of pain processing at the level of the spinal cord. In subsequent years, through collaboration with Professor Richard Apps, the research expanded into investigating how the PAG interacts with spinal and supraspinal motor circuits to co-ordinate behavioural responses essential to survival. During this time, Stella developed a strong interest for the role of midbrain and brainstem in survival behaviours. Her most recent work with Dr Steve Soffe and Professor Alan Roberts enabled her to study midbrain single cell contributions to behaviour utilising the Xenopus laevis tadpole.

Dr Stella Koutsikou joined the Medway School of Pharmacy in June 2017 as a Lecturer in Biological Sciences. She holds an Honorary Senior Research Fellow position at the University of Bristol, where she collaborates with colleagues in the Schools of Biological Sciences, Physiology Pharmacology & Neuroscience and Veterinary Sciences.

Specialist Areas
Midbrain & Brainstem; Xenopus tadpole neurobiology; Behavioural Neuroscience; Defence/Arousal system; Survival Behaviours

Research interests

General principles of the Central Nervous System (CNS) in translating biologically relevant stimuli into natural survival behaviour.

Dr Koutsikou’s research group are focused on exploring the mechanisms by which sensory information is weighted and integrated by the central nervous system and subsequently shapes decision-making and guides survival behaviour. This sensory information can derive from a range of environmental stressors, such as pain, inflammation, prey-predator encounter and chronic disease states.

Current projects
1) Neural substrates underlying simple decision-making in the hatchling Xenopus laevis tadpole.

All animals, whatever their level of cognition, need to make behavioural decisions constantly. These decisions are dependent on various external (e.g. presence of a predator) and internal (e.g. hunger, thirst) cues. Animals making the ‘right’ behavioural choices are able to adapt and survive within their environment, and ultimately reproduce. The ability to respond appropriately to challenging environments requires detection and processing of sensory information within the brain. Mammalian research has shown that decision-making processes in complex brain areas, like the primate cortex, include incoming sensory signals that build slowly to a threshold of neuronal excitability, prior to the initiation of a behaviour. Curiously, our recent studies of skin touch-evoked responses in hatchling Xenopus tadpoles have shown a similar, slow and variable built-up of excitation before the initiation of swimming. Therefore, in this simple animal, the decision to swim shares fundamental characteristics with mechanisms proposed for decision-making in higher vertebrates. In this project, we propose to identify the neurons responsible for the origin of this mechanism underlying decision-making in the Xenopus tadpole’s hindbrain and re-evaluate its fundamental importance in respect to the complex mammalian brain.

This project is funded by The Physiological Society UK: Research Grant (1st October 2019 – 31st March 2021).

2)	Simple motor decision-making with the hindbrain of the Xenopus laevis tadpole.

This project is funded by a University of Kent Vice-Chancellor PhD Scholarship awarded to Giulia Messa.

3)	Midbrain control of motor circuits in the Xenopus laevis tadpole.

This project is currently funded by The Physiological Society UK Undergraduate Summer Scholarship awarded to Obed Agyemang Duah (BSc Physiology & Pharmacology at Medway School of Pharmacy)

4)	Bone marrow – brainstem neural pathways essential in cardiovascular homeostasis. This project is supported by the University of Kent Deputy Vice-Chancellor Partnership Award and it is run in collaboration with Dr Jasenka Zubcevic (University of Florida).


PHAR1041 – Advanced Neuropharmacology (Module Convenor)
PHAM1003 – Cardiovascular Physiology
PHAM1127 – Revision of Cardiovascular Physiology
PHAR1032 – In vivo animal models in Pharmacology research

Recent publications

Koutsikou S*, Merrison-Hort R, Buhl E, Ferrario A, Li WC, Borisyuk R, Soffe SR & Roberts A (2018) A simple decision to move in response to touch reveals basic sensory memory and mechanisms for variable response times. The Journal of Physiology 596(24): 6219-6233. *Corresponding author (This article is highlighted in a Perspectives article by Kardamakis A., doi.org/10.1113/JP276927).
Lawrenson CL, Koutsikou S, Apps R, Lumb BM (2017) Cerebellar contributions to fear behaviour. Clinical Neurophysiology 128(9): e239
Borisyuk R, Merrison-Hort R, Soffe SR, Koutsikou S, Li, WC (2017) To swim or not to swim: A population-level model of Xenopus tadpole decision making and locomotor behaviour. BioSystems DOI: 10.1016/j.biosystems.2017.07.004
Smith M, Taylor C, Weerasinghe N, Koutsikou S, Lumb B, Murrell J. (2016) Does inflammation induced by ultraviolet B and heat rekindling alter pain-related behaviour in rats? Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia 43(5):579-585.
Koutsikou S, Watson TC, Crook JJ, Leith JL, Lawrenson CL, Apps R, Lumb BM. (2015) The periaqueductal gray orchestrates sensory and motor circuits at multiple levels of the neuraxis. Journal of Neuroscience 35(42):14132-47.
Watson TC, Koutsikou S, Apps R, Jones, MW, eds. (2015) Distributed Networks: New Outlooks on Cerebellar Function. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88919-626-5.
Loft MSE, Koutsikou S, Cerminara NL, Apps R. (2015) Cerebellar-Basal Ganglia Communication: Physiological Evidence of a Fast Route for Interaction. In Proceedings of the workshop on Cerebellum, Basal Ganglia and Cortical Connections Unmasked in Health and Disorder held in Brno, Czech Republic, October 17th, 2013. Cerebellum 14:142-150.
Koutsikou S, Crook JJ, Earl EV, Leith JL, Watson TC, Lumb BM, Apps R. (2014) Neural substrates underlying fear-evoked freezing: the periaqueductal grey-cerebellar link. Journal of Physiology 592:2197-2213.
Weerasinghe NS, Lumb BM, Apps R, Koutsikou S, Murrell JC. (2014) Objective Validation of Central Sensitisation in the Rat UVB and Heat Rekindling Model. European Journal of Pain 18: 1199-1206.
Roberts A, Borisyuk R, Buhl E, Ferrario A, Koutsikou S, Li W-C, Soffe SR (2019) The decision to move: response times, neuronal circuits and sensory memory in a simple vertebrate. Proceeding of the Royal Society B 20190297. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.0297
Koutsikou S, Apps R, Lumb BM (2017) Top down control of spinal sensorimotor circuits essential for survival. Journal of Physiology DOI: 10.1113/JP273360. *Corresponding author
Hainer C, Mosienko V, Koutsikou S, Crook JJ, Gloss B, Kasparov S, Lumb BM, Alenina N. (2015) Beyond Gene Inactivation: Evolution of Tools for Analysis of Serotonergic Circuitry. ACS Chemical Neuroscience 6:1116-1129.
Watson TC, Koutsikou S, Cerminara NL, Flavell CR, Crook JJ, Lumb BM, Apps R. (2013) The olivo-cerebellar system and its relationship to survival circuits. Frontiers in Neural Circuits 7:72.
Book editing
Watson TC, Koutsikou S, Apps R, Jones, MW, eds. (2015) Distributed Networks: New Outlooks on Cerebellar Function. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88919-626-5.