Migraines may have positive effect on brain function

April 27, 2007|By John Fauber | John Fauber,McClatchy-Tribune

Is it possible that suffering through years of migraine headaches actually might have a beneficial effect on the brain?

A provocative new study has raised that improbable prospect after finding that longtime, middle-aged migraine sufferers showed less cognitive decline and memory loss over a period of 12 years than a group of migraine-free adults.

Researchers can't explain what could be a silver lining in the agonizing cloud that is migraine, but it's possible that the physiological changes that accompany the headaches might protect brain cells over the long haul.

Beyond offering a modicum of solace to the 30 million migraine sufferers in the United States, the strange finding, if verified, could offer researchers new leads into ways to preserve memory in aging brains.

Bhupendra Khatri, director of the Center for Neurological Disorders at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, noted that migraine suffers tend to experience more depression, anxiety, seizures and stroke than people who do not have migraines. However, there has been a lack of research looking at the long-term effect of migraine on memory and cognitive function, he said. He was not part of the study.

The research, published Tuesday in the journal Neurology, is the first prospective study looking at the lifetime effects of migraines on memory and cognitive function.

The study involved 1,448 people, including 204 who had migraines, who were given several cognitive tests and followed for an average of 12 years.

Since most of the participants were in their late 40s and early 50s when the initial tests were given, a small decline in memory associated with normal aging over 12 years would have been expected in both groups.

On word recall tests, however, those who suffered from migraines declined slightly less than those who did not have migraines. The benefit was significant for those who suffered from migraine with aura, or a warning that the migraine was coming on. On average, they remembered about one word to 1.5 words more on those tests than those who did not have migraines.

On a separate cognitive test, those who have migraines with aura who entered the study at 50 or older had a significantly lower rate of decline than those who don't have migraines.

It's possible that the increased use of non-aspirin, over-the-counter painkillers might be asserting some type of neuro-protective effect in the brains of those with migraines. Another theory is that the lifestyle changes people initiate to reduce migraines, such as getting more sleep, eating well, using relaxation techniques and taking supplements, are helping preserve brain function.

"However, it seems more likely that there may be some underlying biologic mechanism such as changes in [blood vessels] or underlying differences in [brain cell activity], which results in decreased cognitive decline over time," the researchers wrote.

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