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Understanding brain freeze may lead to new headache treatments

23rd April 2012

Scientists who studied the "brain freeze" headache that can occur when we eat ice-cream say their findings could pave the way for new migraine treatments.


The jarring headache associated with the ingestion of cold food was studied by researchers led by Jorge Serrador of the Harvard Medical School because it is the only headache that can easily be triggered in a laboratory.

Speaking to a meeting of experimental biologists, Serrador's team said that ice-cream headaches are caused by a change in the flow of blood to the brain which is triggered by something ice-cold coming into contact with the roof of the mouth.

The team, who included researchers from the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System, studied brain freeze in 13 adults.

They induced the headaches with ice-cold water, and monitored the subjects' blood flow. They repeated the process with tepid water.

The subjects consumed the water through a straw, which pressed on the roof of their mouths.

Researchers were able to tell from signals from the participants when the headaches began and ended.

The team concluded that the pain was caused by increased blood flow to the head in one of the arteries which supplies the brain. The artery's constriction coincided with the end of the headaches reported in the study subjects.

Scientists also believe that migraines and other headaches may be caused by changes in blood flow to the head.

If Serrador's findings are repeated in further studies, they may provide a basis for new avenues in the treatment of migraines.

These debilitating headaches could potentially be targeted by drugs that prevent sudden arterial dilation.

However, experts said that most headaches are not the result of increased blood flow to the brain, and migraine is currently regarded as a neurological disorder, rather than a disorder relating to blood and circulation.

According to Teshamae Monteith, director of the headache programme at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, scientists have known for decades that migraine is the result of a dysfunction in the nervous system.

Monteith said that warning symptoms experienced by migraineurs before the onset of pain, for example, repeated yawning, fatigue and neck stiffness up to a day before the migraine, indicated that migraine is a state of brain dysfunction rather than one of vascular dysfunction.

Joel Saper, director of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, said the current study showed that the pain and the blood flow happened at the same time, but did not prove that one caused the other.

Saper said the ice-cold water could have irritated the nerves involved, adding that some of the more promising new migraine treatments do not target blood vessels at all.

Not everyone would be able to benefit from migraine treatments targeting blood flow, particularly people with heart disease or those at risk of stroke.

Monteith and Saper said more research was needed before a link could be made between ice-cream headaches and other kinds of headache.


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