Twin study shows genetic risk factors for PTSD and migraines for the first time

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and migraines often go hand in hand, but researchers knew relatively little about how or why it happens. A new study in Frontiers in Neuroscience examines for the first time whether the diseases have a common genetic basis. By studying identical twins, in which one twin of each couple lives with PTSD or migraines and the other twin does not, the researchers found common genes that could play a role in both disorders. These genes can help explain why the diseases occur at the same time and could reveal new treatment goals for both.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that typically occurs after a traumatic experience such as a life-threatening event. Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their life, but the vast majority will not develop PTSD, so those who do have something special.

Identical twins can reveal epigenetic risk factors

Those who live with PTSD are also more likely to have migraines, suggesting common risk factors for these conditions. The synergy between PTSD and migraines is not understood as no studies have explored this relationship. This latest study suggests that our genes may hold the answer, particularly epigenetic changes.

Epigenetics refers to the influence of our environment on the expression of our genes and typically involves biochemical modifications to DNA. Identical twins have exactly the same genes, but different experiences in growing up can lead to different epigenetic changes. This may mean that some genes are more or less likely to be expressed in each twin.

The researchers used this phenomenon in twins to see which genes show altered activity in PTSD and migraines, and whether the conditions share changes in common. Six pairs of twins volunteered for the study, in which both twins experienced traumatic events, but only one of each couple lives with PTSD.

Given the small likelihood that all of these conditions would be met, the sample size could never be large. But because identical twins share all of their DNA – but not all of their epigenetic traits – the study is still conclusive. The researchers also enrolled 15 pairs of twins, one of each pair with a migraine headache. The researchers took blood samples from the twins and analyzed them to identify epigenetic changes associated with PTSD or migraines.

Exciting insights

Interestingly, the study showed that certain genes are similarly affected in PTSD and migraines, suggesting that they may share some risk factors.

“Our results suggest that common genes and signaling pathways are involved in PTSD and migraines, and this could explain why PTSD and migraines can often co-occur,” said Prof. Divya Mehta of the Queensland University of Technology, senior author of the Study. “This could further imply that common environmental risk factors for PTSD and migraines could act on these genes.”

So what do these results mean for those living with PTSD and / or migraines? Well, the genes and epigenetic changes identified by the researchers could form the basis for new treatments. Epigenetic changes make an excellent drug target because they can often be reversed.

“These results can have treatment implications because a drug or therapy may only be effective for a single disease,” Mehta said. “If we have conditions like PTSD and migraines that are occurring at the same time, once we know which genes they share in common, we can develop new therapeutics to target them, reducing symptoms and curing both.”


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