A Migraine May Change Your Brain For Good

Amy Schaeffer

Although 37 million Americans suffer from the debilitating pain known as migraine headaches, and they have become all too familiar with the throbbing pain, nausea, light sensitivity, inability to work, and emotional stress involved, what they may not be aware of is that scientific research has shown that just one migraine headache may change your brain -- permanently.

Lead scientist and author Dr. Messoud Ashina, a neurologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, published his study in the academic journal Neurology, and he says that a migraine leaves a structural change on the brain, a "mark" that may be permanent.

"Our review and meta-analysis study suggests that the disorder may permanently alter brain structure in multiple ways. Migraine affects about 10% to 15% of the general population and can cause a substantial personal, occupational and social burden. 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."

According to CNN, the American Migraine Foundation says that migraines cost Americans plenty of money in lost work days and loss of productivity. This can be stressful on individuals, marriages, and workplaces. To confound the problem, there's no definitive treatment that works well for everyone, but treatment and lost sick days cost Americans $20 million a year. For some people, a migraine may only last a few hours, for others, it may last for days. Some people even experience chronic migraines, a situation in which they have a headache for more days of the month than they don't.

The study by Dr. Ashina focused on the results of Magnetic Resonance Imagining, or MRI. An MRI is able to detect subtle changes in brain tissue that an X-ray or CT scan may not. MRIs use tests that use a magnetic field and radio wave energy. Using MRI, Dr. Ashina looked at the records of migraine sufferers to see if they had an increased amount of brain lesions, white matter changes, or infarct-like areas (areas where tissue has died because not enough blood flow has occurred.)

According to the results of the study, Dr. Ashina found that the risk of white matter brain lesions increased 68 percent for those suffering migraines with aura, compared with non-migraine sufferers, but for those who had migraine without aura, only 34 percent had lesions. However, it was also noted that people who got frequent types of other headaches also had white matter changes. The question remained: did those white matter changes harm the individuals who had them?

Fortunately, scientists don't believe so, although they aren't sure what they may mean for the sufferer. Dr. Ashina said that although structural changes occurred, they found no evidence of harm to the migraine sufferer, and that more studies were needed. But, he said, there was no clear relationship between the changes of the brain and the thought patterns of the sufferer.

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