Nov. 13, 2012 -- Women who get migraines are more likely than those who don't to develop small areas of tissue changes in their brains, a new study shows. At the same time, these changes do not seem to affect the women's thinking or memory.
For years, researchers have wondered whether migraine headaches might leave a lasting impact on the brain. "There's a big question, which is, 'Is migraine progressive?'" says neurologist Richard Lipton, MD. Lipton directs the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City. He was not involved in the research.
The new study found evidence that migraines might be tied to having more structural changes in the brain for some people.
While other studies have linked these types of brain findings to memory loss and dementia, researchers say they didn't see any signs of those declines among women in this study.
"On the one hand this study is a little bit comforting, but also a little bit concerning because we need a bigger study addressing these issues to get more definitive answers," says Lipton.
The study is published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study followed 203 people diagnosed with migraines and 83 people who didn't get those kinds of headaches. People in the study ranged in age from 43 to 72. The average age of migraine sufferers was 57.
Researchers asked people in the study how often and how bad their migraines were. They also asked about a host of health issues that are known to affect the brain, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.
People had MRI scans at the start of the study and nine years later to look for any changes.
The type of brain damage measured in the study shows up as small bright spots on an MRI scan.
"You could regard them as small areas of scar tissue," says researcher Mark C. Kruit, MD, PhD. Kruit is a neuroradiologist at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
Kruit stresses that the amount of damage noted for the study participants was small, overall.