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Genetic Link to Migraine Found

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 26, 2002 -- If your migraines are preceded by a familiar visual signal, or aura, you may be able to blame your headaches on your parents. For the first time, researchers have found evidence that migraine with aura is a hereditary condition.

The findings appear in the most recent issue of American Journal of Human Genetics.

Migraines affect up to 12% of the population and are especially prevalent among young women. Until now, numerous studies have been unable to identify a gene responsible for the often-debilitating headaches. However, research on families with migraine has suggested that both environment and heredity play a role in developing the condition.

Migraines are typically characterized by intense, pulsating pain on one side of the head, frequently with pain behind one eye, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise. Some migraines are preceded by an aura -- visual disturbances that happen up to an hour before the actual headache begins. About one-third of migraine sufferers suffer from both types of migraines during their lifetimes.

For the study, researchers analyzed genetic markers in blood samples taken from 50 Finnish families that had three or more members from different generations who suffer from migraine with aura. In about a third of the people studied, researchers found three common markers linked to a specific region of chromosome 4.

"For the first time, we have proof of an isolated genetic link to migraine," says study author Aarno Palotie, MD, PhD, professor of pathology and human genetics at the UCLA, in a news release. "This finding moves us one step closer to isolating the gene that predisposes people to migraine headaches with auras."

Although more studies will be needed to find the specific gene and mutation responsible for causing the disorder, researchers say this discovery is an important first step.

"Now that we have narrowed the hunting ground, these findings provide us with a focused direction for identification of the gene itself," says study author Aarno Palotie, MD, PhD, of the department of pathology at UCLA School of Medicine, in a news release. "They also pave the way for clinical trials of more effective [preventative] drugs."

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