Migraine presents itself as a constellation of symptoms such as severe headache, motion sickness, balance disorders and sensory sensitivity in people. A new study simulated virtual roller coaster rides to see how brain activity in people with migraines differs from those without migraines – to provide insight into what causes the condition.
It is estimated that migraines affect more than a billion people worldwide, but the condition remains disproportionately underdiagnosed and is also one of the world’s most underfunded medical researches. Despite being one of the oldest known ailments in the world, to date there has been no exclusive treatment that works as a permanent cure.
The present study, published in Neurology last week, suggests how the brains of people with migraines respond differently to visual movement stimuli – and could pave the way for better treatments for the condition.
“People with migraines don’t just have headaches; They also often experience other medical conditions such as motion sickness and dizziness that can really affect their quality of life. So this study really gives us a better idea of what is going on [in their brains]“, Gabriela Carvalho from the University of Lübeck, who was involved in the study, told NewScientist.
To understand this, the researchers conducted an unconventional experiment on a group of 40 people – 20 had frequent migraines and 20 had none. Participants were shown audio-visual media from roller coasters to see how their brains react to the sensory stimuli. Researchers then performed fMRI brain scans on participants while they experienced the virtual roller coaster to examine expected symptoms of motion sickness, dizziness, and nausea in real time.
They found that people with migraines had a greater frequency and intensity of motion sickness and nausea, even if they weren’t having migraines at the time. As a result, five areas of the brain showed greater activity than the group with no migraines. These parts of the brain are involved in visual processing, movement, and motor activity.
“Our results show that the areas of the brain associated with processing migraine pain intersect with brain systems that regulate motion sickness and dizziness,” said Carvalho.
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“This increased activity could be related to abnormal transmission of visual, auditory and sensory information in the brain,” said Dr. Arne May, a neurologist from the University of Hamburg who was involved in the study, in a press release.
Notably, more than 80% of the study participants were women; unlike in the past, where much of migraine research has so far focused on male animal models. This is important: Migraines affect women more than men because fluctuating levels of estrogen play a key role. Women have a long history of layoffs when complaining of migraines; The association of migraines with “hysteria” is another symbol that women do not take pain seriously.
Studies have also shown that migraines are associated with a significant stigma: Invisibility leads to people not being taken seriously because of pain, which often becomes too dysfunctional.
Because the condition is currently so poorly understood, the researchers on this study are also calling for more research to confirm their findings, which involve larger groups of people. “Many people in neurology and in society consider migraines a benign disease – it’s not cancer, it’s not Parkinson’s,” Messoud Ashina, neurology professor at the Danish Headache Center’s Human Migraine Research Unit, told the BBC. “But when you look at its public and personal effects, migraines are a huge problem.”
For now, the researchers plan to use the current results to look for links between brain activity from this study and that of an active migraine episode.
“Millions of people regularly suffer from painful and debilitating migraine headaches that can affect their quality of life,” said Dr. May. “By identifying and locating them [brain] Changes could lead our research to a better understanding of migraines, which in turn could lead to the development of better treatments. “