News & Research

Migraines Linked With Brain Damage

As brain cells swell during a migraine, they become starved of oxygen, which may cause brain damage — at least in rats — according to a newly released study. This damage may help explain other findings that people with migraine have a higher risk of stroke. Here’s an excerpt of the article on brain damage and migraine:

“They studied a process called cortical spreading depression, known as CSD, a wave of changes in cells associated with migraine, stroke and head trauma.

“They used a precise two-photon microscopic and oxygen sensor microelectrodes to look at the brains of live mice while they caused this process.

“They saw a swelling occur and the brain cells became starved of oxygen. The nerve cells were damaged — specifically the dendrites, the long, thin spikes that stretch from one nerve cell to another.”

This highlights the importance of using preventives rather than just painkillers during a migraine. Not having a migraine at all prevents other symptoms and the potential for brain damage. In contrast, painkillers treat the pain, they don’t keep the migraine from wreaking havoc on the brain. I’m not sure where triptans fall on this scale, but certainly aborting a migraine is better than having one.

Some good may come from having migraine. A study released last week found that migraine sufferers show less cognitive decline and memory loss than those without migraine.

However, that good news is muddied by other studies showing that people with migraine suffer from brain changes and a risk of brain lesions. Not to mention another new study noted an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

How much more will it take for people to see that migraine isn’t just about headaches?

13 thoughts on “Migraines Linked With Brain Damage”

  1. I have had chronic, 3 to 5 aura migraines weekly for thirty-one plus years. The Neurologists have tried all the preventatives possible, so far nothing but Botox(which touched about one third of my problem)has shown any relief. Aside from Imitrex I am given nothing by Kaiser to relieve my pain. I have seen, allergists, accupuncturists, herbalists, nutritionists, neurologists, pyschologists, pyschyatrists, Anointing, prayer, feverview,etc….
    My memory is little by little disappearing and has been noticed by all my family members over the years. No one is helping me.

  2. @ Ashleigh – I feel for you. Your syndrome sounds like a carbon copy of my life. Sorry to say, I am now 43 and still suffering. My syndrome began at around age 6. The good news is that over the course of my life, I have seen amazing advances in the study and treatment of migraine. It wasn’t too long ago that they were actually disregarded and considered psychological. I haven’t found anything that works yet either, but when I get rebound for a long period, I do use an occasional course of steroids to set things right. You may want to discuss this with your doctor. Good luck to you, hopefully a breakthrough is around the corner for us all!

  3. Ive had migraines since i was a child and get them really frequently especially under stress and im only 18.. doctors still havent found medication that actually works, and the pain medication is just causing rebound headaches i fear. To then find out that it could cause problems in the future is worrying.. i saw a neurologist who diagnosed me with chronic migraines because the blood vessels around my head were constantly swollen and not getting the chance to settle down. I got a good painkiller, but have built up an immunity to it and im now going on preventive medicine for the second time. This time it hopefully should work as i cant continue the way i am. Its causing insomnia as well, which is making the migraines more severe.. vicious cycle.

  4. i have suffered migraines for the past 8 years. of the past 4 i think as you would know memory loss is getting worst. i have am slowly loosing my vision if anyone can tell me why. i went and got optomotrist test today after 1 year and he wants me to go back several times for testing before he will perscribe he said he has never seen anyone loose it so rapidly. my memory loss is short and there is now so much of my past that is gone and i can’t remember. i have alleries to most preventatives. am seeing accupuncturist and going herbal. i always carry around my painkillers and they are strongest you can get. i have a great doc and we have tried everything but allergies. i can get 2 to 3 a week and some can last up to 2 days if i can’t get a pethadine or morphine shot after i have had 100mg of imagraine. i wish to study but once 1 memorize some then it is gone. i contrantly have presssure. my last brain scan and i have had a lot have come up normal. i have an 8 and 19 year old. i am scared for my 8 year old as i decline. somedays i can’t even get him to school. Help if anyone has anything that has info on eye sight right.

  5. I often get irritated whenever i accost people and they go. I suffer headaches too.

    My malaprops are getting worse and I’m only 39:( I often embarrass myself with it and my friends think this is due to my eccentricity.

    i am convinced some sort of damage is being done to my brain as whilst I possess neglible short term memory, my long term memory is like an elephant’s which is strange when juxtaposed against my short term memory.

    I am more worried about going blind due to infrequent/frequent loss of vison during episodes.

    How likely is blindness?

  6. For anyone who thinks the information presented here is condescending–please note that most of what Kerrie has put forward here has been written by journalists, and not by medical experts. It has been paraphrased from the original medical studies. I personally find it distressing and somewhat irresponsible that every finding in the medical literature becomes a sound bite for the media.

    It is the unfortunate fact that not every study can be taken as absolute gospel truth. This is why we call our ideas “hypotheses”, and we set up studies to test our hypotheses. Generally speaking, we consider them to be working hypotheses until newer ideas are discovered to expand our understanding of the concept. And even then, we are not fully comfortable until new findings are confirmed by several studies.

    A good chunk of what we are taught in the early part of medical school is how to interpret studies in the medical literature–how to analyze the validity of study design, how to be certain the statistical analysis was done correctly, and how to tell if a given study actually measured anything that matters.

    There are a number of issues presented here. White matter lesions (those white spots on MRI scans that some migraineurs get) may or may not reflect anything to do with brain damage. We do not know yet. However, there was a paper presented this past week in Boston at the Academy of Neurology meeting that suggests not. But I would want to see further confirmation before I would be certain about anything. White matter lesions, however, are unlikely to cause cognitive damage, as it is the gray matter that does the thinking.

    In the study that suggests “older” migraine sufferers have no cognitive decline–this was determined by conducting a 10 minute test called the Mini-Mental Status Exam, which is not particularly rigorous testing. Genetic material was also collected for a test called APOE4, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s. However, very recent research conducted at Yale has demonstrated that the APOE4 genetic allele is associated with psychosis in Alzheimer’s, and not with cognitive decline or loss of function. (The migraine researchers could not have known that when they began their study some years ago.)

    In Boston, I saw microscopy pictures of blood vessels, brain cells, and receptors specially stained to show what happens during cortical spreading depression. This was research done at Harvard-MIT. It was fairly clear that there is oxygen loss in the cellular areas in between the capillaries during cortical spreading depression (CSD). Does this cause cognitive loss? We don’t know. The type of researcher who looks at cellular and subcellular structures is generally not the same type of researcher who studies cognitive responses in a whole person.

    Research can be excruciatingly slow. We have, for example, known about CSD since the 1930s, but it took time before it was proven to be associated with migraine, and even longer before we have been able to more clearly understand its significance. We are only now learning exactly what happens chemically during CSD.

    The take-home message is that not everyone with migraine is the same, and that, NO–it’s NOT JUST A HEADACHE!

  7. I think it points to the importance of getting diagnosed and trying preventatives and prescription abortives and not just treating it like “a headache” and take pain meds. It also reminds me to take my Maxalt as soon as I think I have some aura and not wait to “see if it’ll be a migraine” (when is it not??)

    As far as worrying about long term effects, I don’t really dwell on it. My mom is 64 years old, and has the same migraine disease I do, she’s migrained extremely frequently without any abortives or preventatives for about 20 years… and then migraine 2-4 times a month for the next 28 years on preventatives. She has some minor memory issues, but she’s not cognitively impaired, she’s still sharp, independent and witty. 🙂

    So I expect that I might have some neurological obstacles as I age, same as I’ve had some neurological obstacles all my life. Genetics is what it is, but if my mom’s any forewarning of things to come, I can handle what’s coming.

  8. I’ve often wondered if my excruciating migraines would commulatively result in long-term ill effects on my brain and/or blood vessels. I agree, this really makes a good case for prevention, which for me means sticking to a strict routine of weekly accupuncture, cranial sacral therapy and supplements like vitamin B and magnesium. It takes time and money, but not having frequent headaches makes it all worth it.

  9. I’ve often wondered if my excruciating migraines would commulatively result in long-term ill effects on my brain and/or blood vessels. I agree, this really makes a good case for prevention, which for me means sticking to a strict routine of weekly accupuncture, cranial sacral therapy and supplements like vitamin B and magnesium. It takes time and money, but not having frequent headaches makes it all worth it.

  10. kerrie,
    I still think this info is condescending; I mean in one word, they say it shows evidence of brain damage, and in another no cognitive decline in memory loss. I don’t know where you stand as far as any loss, but there are still areas in my memory, that are still completely lost. If that isn’t cognitive loss, please have them explain what is. I was told by my neuro that I may never, NEVER regain some of my memory. I think the ball is still out in our court. Nobody really has a true grip on our disease, long-term yet. Either in the cognitive, memory, or perhaps the unfortunate end result. Ouch.

    Keep up the good work, Kerrie. Please don’t think for any reason, that my blasting has any bearing on your work. It’s is only on the so-called experts in the field of our treatment, that still don’t know it all.

  11. Wow – I had no idea! I know they’re painful and annoying, but didn’t realize they were damaging to your health in other ways.
    I don’t have headaches (I have Fibromyalgia and a pile of other chronic conditions), but I really appreciate your info. So much of it is universal…I kept meaning to comment on your posts about “pain diaries” {not keeping one because the truth can be so depressing} and “schedules” {ha.ha. hurghmrh!}
    Anyway, now I understand even more about migraines which helps me understand migraneurs better (LOVE your word, btw!). I think understanding leads to compassion and makes the world a better place for everyone, bit by bit.

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