Effective migraine treatment a step closer: study

Migraines – headaches from hell. They come in many forms, with symptoms ranging from nausea to intense pressure between the eyes to light hypersensitivity to auras to straight out vomiting. Whatever their form, they can be severely debilitating.

But there may be light at the end of the tunnel – and not the blinding light usually associated with migraine. Recent studies have taken us a step closer to understanding how migraines work, which in turn could lead to better treatments and possibly even the Holy Grail for sufferers – prevention.

A new report published in Nature strongly supports the notion that genetics play a big role. The study, in which the authors performed a genome-wide association study of 102,084 migraine cases and 771,257 controls, identified 123 genetic regions, or loci, that are associated with the condition – 86 of which were previously unknown.

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The identification of genes previously not associated with migraine provides the potential for researchers to home in on more effective therapies and preventative measures.

What’s the difference between a headache and migraine?

Many sufferers of migraines would suggest that if you need to ask that question, you’ve never had a migraine. And they may well be right, although it’s a little more nuanced than that. This is because ‘migraine’ is an umbrella term covering a range of symptoms, only one of which is headaches.

The list of other symptoms is not short, and includes trouble with muscle coordination, flashing lights and vertigo to name but a few.

Read: A neurologist answers some common migraine questions

While there is no ‘official’ explanation of the difference between a ‘garden variety’ headache and a migraine, in simple terms non-migraine headaches tend to affect the entire head and come as a result of tension, sinus swelling, exposure to bright lights or overexertion.

Migraine headaches tend to affect one side of the head and are often accompanied by one or more of the symptoms outlined previously: nausea, vertigo, extreme light sensitivity and dizziness.

One of the key debates researchers have engaged in for decades relates to the presence or otherwise of accompanying ‘aura’ – symptoms such as seeing spots, stars, wavy lines, zigzags, flashes, bright dots or black patches and, sometimes, a temporary total loss of vision.

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Suggestions have been made that the two main migraine subtypes, migraine with aura and migraine without aura, may in fact be two separate disorders. Debate about whether the causes of migraine are neurological, vascular (relating to blood vessels) or both has also been ongoing. The study’s authors concluded that evidence supports “the notion that migraine is a neurovascular disease”.

Among the new loci identified as being risk factors are two targets of recently developed and effective migraine treatments. This has the potential to develop new therapies against migraine and reduce the burden for the many sufferers of the condition worldwide.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz