- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Migraines may be a lot more than episodes of intense, unrelenting pain. A study suggests they may cause brain damage.

The study, published in this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found evidence of brain lesions in migraine sufferers at a rate far exceeding those without migraines.

“This shows migraines are not just headaches, something brought on by stress,” Lenore Launer, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s neuro-epidemiology section and a co-author of the study, said in an interview yesterday.

The study did not determine whether migraines were responsible for the excessive incidence of brain lesions found in migraine sufferers, but the evidence strongly suggests this, Ms. Launer said.

“I’m very proud of this study,” which could mean migraines “can lead to pathologic brain changes,” Ms. Launer added.

Migraines, which strike about 10 percent of the population, usually start on one side of the forehead and sometimes spread to the back of the head.

The headaches bring gripping, throbbing pain that can last from four hours to three days, Ms. Launer said. They are three times more common in women than men and often are accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light.

The study in JAMA, led by Dr. Mark Kruit of the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, involved 295 Dutch adults, ages 30 to 60, who experienced migraines.

That total included 161 persons who had visual disturbances with their migraines, and 134 who had headaches but not eye problems. The test subjects were compared with 140 similar persons, who were migraine-free.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers found evidence of brain tissue that died as a result of a lack of oxygen in those with migraines.

The Dutch study found that in patients having both migraines and visual malfunctions, the risk of having such tissue was 13 times higher than in patients without migraines. Patients who had migraines, but no accompanying sight difficulties, had more than seven times the normal risk.

Ms. Launer, who worked in the Netherlands before serving at the institute, said she finds the likelihood of a link between migraines and brain damage convincing because the lesions were found in an “area where blood flows to the brain.”

The results “mean we may have to shift the way people think about migraines,” said Ms. Launer.

“They’re thought of now as episodic — people get a headache and that is it,” she said, when, in fact, migraines can be “chronic” and progressive.

Seymour Diamond, chairman of the National Headache Foundation, said the JAMA report shows the importance of early treatment of migraines.

Ms. Launer agreed.

She said that in the Netherlands, which has national health insurance, 50 percent of migraine sufferers never have been treated.

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