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Migraines & Headaches Health Center

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Brain Differences Seen in People With Migraines

MRI study suggests changes occur in areas associated with pain

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, March 26 (HealthDay News) -- People who suffer migraines may have certain structural differences in pain-related areas of the brain, a new study suggests.

Using MRI scans, researchers found that in specific brain regions related to pain processing, migraine sufferers showed a thinner and smaller cortex compared to headache-free adults. The cortex refers to the outer layer of the brain.

It's not clear what it all means. But the researchers suspect that certain aspects of brain development may make some people more vulnerable to developing migraines -- and that migraine attacks create further changes in the brain.

The surface area of the brain "increases dramatically" during fetal development, while the thickness of the cortex changes throughout life, explained senior researcher Dr. Massimo Filippi.

"We speculate that migraine patients might have a sort of cortical 'signature' -- abnormal cortical surface area -- which could make them more susceptible to pain and abnormal processing of painful stimuli," said Filippi, a professor of neurology at the University Vita-Salute's San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan.

Once migraines develop, they may alter the thickness of the brain's cortex, Filippi explained.

A neurologist who was not involved in the study said it "adds to the growing body of knowledge that patients with migraine have brains that not only function differently, but may actually look different structurally as well."

That's important because it helps "legitimize" migraine as a neurological disorder associated with "real structural changes in the brain," said Dr. Matthew Robbins, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Headache Center, in New York City.

Worldwide, an estimated 11 percent of people have had a migraine in the past year. Migraines typically cause intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head, along with sensitivity to light and sound, and sometimes nausea and vomiting.

About 30 percent of people with recurrent migraines also have sensory disturbances right before their head pain hits. Those disturbances, known as "aura," are usually visual -- like seeing flashes of light or blind spots.

No one knows precisely what causes migraines, but they do seem to involve abnormal brain activity and -- like the new study suggests -- abnormal brain structure.

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