Migraines were once thought to be a painful, but benign condition, typically developing over one side of the head and triggered by a variety of stimuli. However, if the latest research is anything to go by, it appears that migraines can, in actual fact, promote a series of tangible and damaging alterations to the human brain. Intriguingly, these migraines are also thought to be linked to an individual’s household income.
Migraines have a heavy genetic component, with an estimated two thirds of cases being passed down from the parental line. The exact cause of migraines is poorly understood, although several mechanisms have been proposed, including neurovascular issues, high levels of serotonin, and neuronal problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) state that a process, deep within the brain, stimulates the release of pro-inflammatory mediators around the brain tissue and blood vessels; this is the mechanism that induces a migraine sufferer’s pain.
It is believed that an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population are affected by migraines. The researchers now claim that these people could be at risk of permanent brain damage, highlighted by changes in white matter and brain volume, alongside the appearance of cerebral lesions.
Dr. Messoud Ashina, operating from the University of Copenhagen, conducted a thorough review of 19 studies, which explored the influence of migraines on the development of brain abnormalities and lesions. The results were published in the latest edition of the journal, Neurology.
The study’s participants who were prone to developing auras are placed at a heightened risk of developing these neurological aberrations.
Accumulated results showed a 64 percent increase in the presence of white matter lesions of patients who developed migraine-related auras; for reference, the increase was substantially lower in subjects who did not experience the auras. Overall, brain abnormalities and volume changes were more frequent in migraine sufferers who experienced these auras.
- One-sided pain of the head
- Disturbance to vision, sensation, and language and motor skills (aura)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Worsening pain, upon exertion
The study also delved into some of the specific social factors that might provoke a migraine. Interestingly, the research established a relationship between the younger generation and their annual income in developing migraines. Women, aged between 25 and 34, were placed into high, middle and low household income brackets, with migraine incidence increasing from high to low. Allowing for conjecture, these data could suggest a relationship between stress and the development of migraines and, therefore, resultant brain damage.
A similar pattern was perceived in the male population, of the same age range. Only 5 percent of males from high income households experienced migraines, relative to figures of 8 and 13 percent for middle and low income categories, respectively.
The duration of migraines, however, remained unaffected by household income.
According to BBC News, Dr. Fayyaz Ahmed, who chairs the British Association for the Study of Headache, advises caution over interpretation of these latest discoveries:
“… the significance of this remains uncertain… It would be too premature to say that a migraineur’s brain is at high risk of future structural or functional problems unless there are long term longitudinal studies done.”
A number of factors are thought responsible for the manifestation of migraines, including hunger, fatigue, diet, hormonal changes, and use of contraceptives and other medications. The exact involvement of these migraine triggers is unknown.
Current treatment strategies revolve around administration of oral analgesics, including combinations of acetaminophen, ibuprofen and codeine. However, prophylactic treatment is also available, as well as anti-sickness drugs (anti-emetics).
However, Dr. Ashina firmly believes that an individual’s approach to addressing their migraine problem could be more adequately tackled if we understood more about some of the potential migraine “stressors,” aside from household income. And, with evidence to suggest migraines could be linked to brain damage, more research certainly needs to be conducted.
By: James Fenner