Affecting the Brain

When we think of problems that affect the brain, we commonly think of Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Those diseases receive a significant amount of funding and research, so we know a lot about their effects on the brain and how they change the brain's structure. But what about the effects of less serious afflictions, such as migraines?

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark showed in a study published in Neurology in 2013 that, contrary to traditional thinking, small and "harmless" migraines might actually have a real and lasting effect on the brain's structure. "Our review and meta-analysis study suggests that the disorder may permanently alter brain structure in multiple ways," Dr. Messoud Ashina, author of the study, told CNN at the time.

In that study, the researchers examined data from multiple prior studies (six population-based and 13 clinic-based) to see how the brains of migraine sufferers shaped up against non-sufferers. In particular, they looked for brain lesions, volume changes, and white matter abnormalities.

Their main discovery was that the risk of white matter brain lesions increased by 68 percent for those suffering from migraines with aura and by 34 percent for those suffering from migraines without aura. They also concluded that people with migraines had a greater propensity for brain volume changes and that people with migraines with aura were more likely to have infarct-like lesions, also known as silent strokes, than those who suffered from migraines without aura (those lesions were no more likely to appear in people with migraines than those who didn't suffer from them, though).

Longterm Impact

Luckily for migraine sufferers, the researchers concluded that these permanent changes didn't pose any threat to a patient's wellbeing — "Studies of white matter changes showed no relationship to migraine frequency or cognitive status of patients," says Ashina — but because white matter abnormalities are not frequently researched, the increased appearance of these changes does warrant more studies.

While much research is conducted on the causes of migraines or how to treat them, the longterm affect of these painful headaches is still a relative mystery. With an estimated 37 million Americans suffering from migraines, knowing whether the condition is hurting our future health as well as our present is essential.

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