In a groundbreaking animal study, scientists have pinpointed a chemical in the brain tied to extreme migraine sensitivity, and their work may lead to novel ways to treat the debilitating illness in humans.
Led by neuroscientist Dr. Greg Dussor, a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas initiated a new method of treatment to alter the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein associated with heightened migraine attacks, in rodents.
Previous studies in humans have found elevated levels of BDNF among migraine sufferers, note the researchers. Testing to see how BDNF levels affect migraine sensitivity, the researchers injected rodents with a drug that essentially captured the BDNF proteins and diminished their active levels.
The research team discovered that rodents with decreased BDNF levels no longer experienced migraines when triggered by stimulus that previously brought on one of the crushing headaches, according to the study appearing in the December issue of Pain.
“There’s something that BDNF has done, and potentially is continuing to do, that is keeping migraine patients sensitized to these later events,” said Dr. Greg Dussor, lead author of the study, in a news release. “It’s exciting that we can influence that sensitization or priming by manipulating BDNF in an animal model.”
Potentially a Huge Benefit
A new, effective approach to migraine treatment would have a tremendous impact on the health of the population. In the U.S., about 38 million people suffer from migraines, including nearly 20 percent of all women, according to the Migraine Research Foundation, which helped fund the study.
Despite the prevalence, migraines are not completely understood. One prevailing thought among scientists is that migraine pain begins in the membranes, known as the meninges, that hold the brain and spinal cord.
“There’s a large amount of pain signaling that can come in from the meninges during migraines,” Dussor explained.
Removing BDNF was an effective way to reduce the chance of repeat migraines, at least in rodents. The study found that triggers that had previously set off an attack no longer led to a migraine following the BDNF treatment.
The Complex Problem of Migraine Triggers
Migraine triggers are notoriously personal – what’s normal to one person may bring on a devastating attack in another.
“Stress, too much sleep, too little sleep, skipping a meal, certain scents, bright lights — all kinds of things can be triggers. But many people experience those same conditions and don’t get migraines,” said Dussor.
Migraines can last for days, leveling people with a throbbing headache and additional symptoms that may include nausea, vomiting or severe sensitivity to light and touch.
The researchers hope that further studies can shed light on this promising development.
“There’s some critical role for BDNF in the brain stem that allows this plastic state to develop and probably also allows it to maintain itself,” Dussor said. “We have a lot of work to do to try to figure out what happens downstream of BDNF, trying to determine how we can target the pain system while not impacting learning and memory, emotion and movement. We are still working on solving the puzzle.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.