Brain Structure May Be Permanently Altered By Migraines
August 29, 2013

Brain Structure May Be Permanently Altered By Migraines

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Migraines are severe and potentially debilitating headaches marked by a throbbing pain on just one side of the head and, according to a new research review published in Neurology, they are capable of affecting the brain structure as shown on imaging tests.

"Our review and meta-analysis study suggests that the disorder may permanently alter brain structure in multiple ways," study author Dr. Messoud Ashina, a neurologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, recently told CNN.

In the study, the research team considered six population-based studies and 13 clinical studies to determine if people who suffer from migraines have abnormalities in the brain’s white matter, lesions that resemble previous strokes, or structural changes in the volume of the brain’s gray and white matter as seen using magnetic resonance imaging.

The team found that the risk of white matter lesions was 68 percent higher for those suffering migraines with aura, visual disturbances like wavy lines that occur before the onset of a migraine, compared to non-sufferers. Those who suffered from migraines without aura had only a 34 percent increased risk. Study researchers also found that white matter abnormalities can also occur in non-migraine headaches. They noted that the effects these white matter abnormalities lead to is unclear.

People with migraines were also more likely to exhibit brain volume changes than those who don't suffer from the condition.

"Migraine affects about 10 to 15 percent of the general population and can cause a substantial personal, occupational and social burden," Ashina said. "We hope that through more study, we can clarify the association of brain structure changes to attack frequency and length of the disease. We also want to find out how these lesions may influence brain function."

The neurologist said these physical artifacts of migraines are not a cause for concern.

"Studies of white matter changes showed no relationship to migraine frequency or cognitive status of patients,” Ashina noted.

Dr. MaryAnn Mays, a staff neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the research, told CNN that she agreed with the study’s findings.

"What this study does demonstrate is yes, brain changes are more common in patients with migraines and probably are more common in patients with migraine aura," Mays told CNN. "The good news is that ... long-term cognitive changes were not seen, even though these brain changes were apparent on imaging."

"I don't think overall in the long-term migraine sufferers need to be concerned," Mays added. "However, clinicians should screen for cardiovascular risk factors that may be apparent and can be modified - such as hypertension and high cholesterol - that could be contributing to white matter lesions that are unrelated to the migraine."

Mays suggested that headache experts continue to monitor developments related to the study’s findings to see if it will have any impact on the overall health of migraine sufferers.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraines cost Americans over $20 billion annually in both medical expenses and indirect costs such as lost productivity at work.