Harvard Medical School scientists who say they have a better idea of what causes brain freeze, believe that their study could eventually pave the way to more effective treatments for various types of headaches, such as migraine-related ones, or pain caused by brain injuries.
Brain freeze, also known as an ice-cream headache or cold-stimulus headache has the very long scientific name of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It is a kind of short-term headache typically linked to the rapid consumption of ice-cream, ice pops, or very cold drinks.
Brain freeze can occur if you eat an ice cream too fast
Brain freeze occurs when something extremely cold touches the upper-palate (roof of the mouth). It normally happens when the weather is very hot, and the individual consumes something too fast.
Dr. Jorge Serrador, a cardiovascular electronics researcher, who presented the team's finding at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting, San Diego, explained that until now, scientists have not been able to fully understand what causes brain freeze.
Dr. Serrador and team recruited 13 healthy adult volunteers. They were asked to sip ice-cold water through a straw, so that the liquid would hit their upper palate. Blood flow in their brain was monitored using a transcranial Doppler test.
They found that the sensation of brain freeze appears to be caused by a dramatic and sudden increase in blood flow through the brain's anterior cerebral artery. As soon as the artery constricted, the brain-freeze pain sensation wore off.
The scientists were able to trigger the artery's constriction by giving the volunteers warm water to drink (a good tip for getting rid of brain freeze).
What causes brain freeze?
If you're wondering about the science behind brain freeze, this video by the SciShow team takes a look at how brain freeze occurs and discusses the quick ways in which to get rid of it.
Migraine sufferers more susceptible to brain freeze
Dr. Serrador explained that we already know that migraine sufferers are more likely to suffer brain freeze after drinking or eating very cold foods/drinks, compared to people who never have migraines. He suggests that some of what occurs during brain freeze may be similar to what causes migraines, and possibly other kinds of headaches, including those caused by traumatic brain injuries.
Serrador and team believe that local changes in brain blood flow may be causing other types of headaches. If this can be confirmed in further studies, new medications that prevent or reverse vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) may help treat headaches.
Vasodilation is probably part of a self-defense mechanism
Dr. Serrador said:
"The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time.
It's fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm."
If dilated arteries cause a sudden rush of blood to the brain, which raises pressure and causes pain, a drug that constricts the blood vessel should reduce pressure and eliminate the pain. Also, constricting the blood vessels that supply the brain could help prevent pressure building up dangerously high.