An article recently published in Science Translational Medicine reports that mutations on a single gene appear to increase the risk for both migraines and an unusual sleep disorder. The researchers believe these findings may help to explain the connections between migraines and sleep problems, as well as help find new drugs to treat migraines.
Dr. Emily Bates, a member of the research team sees the discovery as a personal victory – she has suffered from migraines since she was a girl. In fact, Bates decided to become a scientist so that she could understand “these bizarre, awful migraines.” She earned a doctorate in genetics at Harvard. Then while working in a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, she had the opportunity to study the behavior of mice carrying a mutated gene that helps control circadian rhythms. While Bates says there is no sure way to know if a mouse has a headache, she began looking for other migraine symptoms she knew well – like sensitivity to heat and touch. “All of the things that we looked at basically said these mice are more susceptible to migraine than a normal mouse,” she says. There were also brain changes seen similar to those in people having a migraine.

Dr. Andrew Charles, a neurologist at UCLA, and a co-researcher believes the findings help explain the evasive link between migraine and sleep patterns. “Disruptions of sleep are very well known to be a migraine trigger. And many migraine patients will tell you that their migraine attack will only end if they’re able to get to sleep,” he says. He believes the study represents “another step toward bringing migraine forward as a disorder of the brain and a disorder for which there’s a genetic basis.”

Dr. Bates, who is now on the faculty at Brigham Young University sees the ultimate reward of the research being new ways to treat migraines. “I know so well how frustrating and really demoralizing it can be to get a migraine. But I think once we understand the mechanism we can design better drugs.”   5/1/13

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