How Migraines Change Your Brain
We know that migraines inflict pain and disrupt daily life. But that’s not all they do. A growing number of studies show that each attack actually changes our brains. Let’s look closer.
Advanced imaging technology is making it possible to study the brain in new ways. This imaging has revealed differences between the brains of people who suffer migraines and those who don’t. Much of the research has focused on a possible link between migraines and stroke risk (which we’ll look at in an upcoming newsletter). But research has also revealed structural differences in the brain that seem to increase as migraine attacks occur over time.
An overly excitable brain
To summarize years of research in the very simplest terms, repeated migraine attacks seem to make the brain overly sensitive to stimuli. For instance, a level of pain that most people would experience as minor might feel intense to a person who suffers from migraines.
From our sensory perceptions and emotions to memory, cognition and hormone production, virtually every area of the brain seems to be vulnerable to structural changes caused by migraine attacks. In the hypothalamus, for example, over-sensitivity to stimuli can trigger nausea and vomiting, nasal congestion, cravings, thirst, tiredness and other reactions commonly associated with migraines.
With each attack, the brain gets even more sensitive
Structural changes in the brain seem to progress over time. The more migraines you have and the more intense they are, the more sensitive your brain’s “circuits” become. This can change how you experience the world (physically and emotionally) all the time—not just during migraine attacks.
You might, for example, find yourself unable to tolerate bright lights. The way you experience all pain—not just migraines—might intensify.
While our brains get more and more sensitized with each migraine attack, it doesn’t appear that migraine sufferers’ brains age faster or that migraines are linked with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Still, no one wants repeated migraine attacks to pave the way to functional changes that amplify stress, intensify pain and make it hard to concentrate. The good news here is that many doctors, including Dr. Richard Lipton—a leading migraine researcher—speculate that reducing the frequency or severity of migraines will probably reverse some of these structural changes in the brain.
The immediate takeaway? It’s something we already know: preventing migraines is critical for both quality of life now and better health down the road.
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