Understanding 'Brain Freeze' May Lead To Migraine Treatments
April 24, 2012

Understanding ‘Brain Freeze’ May Lead To Migraine Treatments

Lee Rannals for RedOrbit.com

Scientists are studying how the brain's blood flow causes a "brain freeze," which could eventually lead to a better understanding of other types of headaches.

A brain freeze is a near-instantaneous headache that occurs when someone is taking a bite of ice cream, or slurping down an Icee.

Scientists still do not have a handle on exactly why this phenomenon occurs, but they have determined that those who suffer migraines are more prone to experiencing a brain freeze than people who do not have these types of headaches.

Previous studies meant to assess what physiological changes have prompt headaches relied on various drugs, or brought in patients already experiencing a migraine.  However, these methods have limitations.

Pharmacological agents can induce other effects that can make research results misleading, and since researchers cannot wait for migraine suffers to experience a migraine in the lab, those studies miss the period of headache formation.

A brain freeze ended up being a perfect fit for the researches because it is easy to bring on, and resolves quickly.

During the new study, volunteers were brought into a lab and were given ice water through a straw at room temperature to try and induce a brain freeze.

Once a volunteer had a brain freeze, they would raise their hand when they felt the pain, and raise it again once the pain dissipated.

The team studied the blood flow in the brain of the participants who were experiencing a brain freeze.  They found that the sudden headache seems to be triggered by an abrupt increase in blood flow in the anterior cerebral artery, and disappears when this artery constricts.

The team believes that the dilation, then quick constriction, may be a type of self-defense for the brain.

"The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time," Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School, the study leader, said in a press release. "It's fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm."

He said that because the skull is a closed structure, the sudden influx of blood could raise pressure and induce pain.  This could be a way to bring pressure down in the brain before it reaches dangerous levels, Serrador added.

He said similar alterations in blood flow could be at work in migraines, post traumatic headaches, and other headache types.  The results could help researchers find ways to control blood flow and offer new treatments for these conditions.

Their study entitled "Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During 'Brain Freeze" will be discussed this week at the Experimental Biology 2012 conference.