Studies estimate that between 10 and 13 percent of Americans suffer from migraines. If you’ve ever suffered from one, then you know firsthand the incapacitating discomfort that a migraine entails: throbbing pain, blurred vision, nausea, and sensitivity to light or sound are all among the most frequently reported symptoms. In the past, the general consensus was that one just had to grin and bear it for the four to seventy-two hours that it persisted. However, new research suggests that the problem isn’t so temporary — in fact, it can lead to permanent structural changes in the brain.
University of Copenhagen researchers conducted a meta-analysis of studies that captured MRI brain scans of migraine sufferers (both those with and without aura) compared to a control population. The results were concerning: “People who get migraines have a heightened risk of brain lesions, white matter abnormalities and altered brain volume compared to those who don’t … White matter brain lesions were 68 percent more likely in those with aura, and 34 percent more likely in those who experience migraines alone.”
Also trouble is the increase in infarct-like lesions (ILL), which are “tiny brain lesions that look like strokes,” and are more likely in those, “Who see flashing lights or other visual disturbances before the migraine itself starts.” The researchers recommend that patients who have infarct-like lesions in particular, “should be evaluated for stroke risk factors.”
The underlying causes of migraine remain ambiguous, but some researchers have hypothesized that compromised arteries that bring blood to the brain could be a contributing factor. University of Pennsylvania researchers used magnetic resonance angiography and arterial spin labeling in order to get a better picture of these arteries, which are called “the circle of Willis.”
The researchers found that, “Of the people in the study who suffered from migraine with aura, 73 percent had an incomplete circle of Willis, as did 67 percent of people who had migraines without aura. This compared with 51 percent of the healthy controls who did not get migraine headaches.”
Furthermore, the results may explain the visual disturbances associated with migraines: “Abnormalities in both the circle of Willis and blood flow were most prominent in the back of the brain, where the visual cortex is located.”
Scientists agree that much more research needs to be conducted regarding the causes as well as the results of migraine headaches. With these new findings that indicate that migraines can change the brain’s structure indelibly, the necessity of further research has only become more exigent.