Episodic migraine affects a lot of people, yet the condition remains poorly understood. However, a team of researchers believes that it may have discovered a new biomarker for episodic migraine in the blood.

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For the study, researchers assessed lipid levels in the blood of 52 women who experienced episodic migraine, along with 36 control participants.

The findings of the study, published in Neurology, could have implications for the diagnosis and treatment of episodic migraine if they can be supported by further research.

“While more research is needed to confirm these initial findings, the possibility of discovering a new biomarker for migraine is exciting,” reports study author Dr. B. Lee Peterlin, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD.

Episodic migraine is a headache disorder in which an individual has less than 15 headache days over the course of a month. In comparison, individuals with chronic migraine have 15 or more headache days per month.

Migraines can have a significant impact on public health. People that have migraines are more likely to have depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and fatigue than their peers. In addition to the public health costs of migraine, the American Migraine Foundation estimate that migraines cost the US more than $20 billion each year in medical and indirect expenses.

While the mechanisms behind migraines are not fully understood, learning more about their cause will give researchers the opportunity to test new interventions to treat or prevent this debilitating condition.

For the study, the researchers performed neurological examinations on a group of 52 women who had been diagnosed with episodic migraine, experiencing an average of 5.6 headache days per month. Alongside them, the researchers also examined 36 women as control participants who did not have headaches.

The researchers measured the body mass index (BMI) of each participant and took samples of their blood. The blood samples were analyzed for a specific group of lipids known as ceramides that have been previously identified as a group that helps regulate inflammation in the brain.

Among the women with episodic migraine, the researchers found that total levels of ceramides were decreased in comparison with the women who did not report having headaches.

On average, those with episodic migraines had around 6,000 nanograms per milliliter of total ceramides in their blood, compared with around 10,500 nanograms per milliliter in the blood of the control participants.

Fast facts about migraines
  • Around 1 in 4 American households have a member with migraine
  • At present, there is no absolute cure for migraine
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) consider migraine to be one of the world’s 20 most disabling illnesses.

Learn more about migraines

As total ceramide levels increased, the total risk of developing a migraine decreased. The researchers also found that two other lipids were linked to an increased risk of migraine. These lipids belonged to a type called sphingomyelin.

To check their findings, the researchers tested the blood of 14 participants for these lipids. In doing so, they were able to accurately predict which samples belonged to participants with episodic migraine and which belonged to control participants.

A number of limitations may need to be addressed in future studies. As the participants were all female and most of the headaches experienced were accompanied by aura, the findings may not extend to other forms of headache or other demographic groups.

Despite these shortcomings, Dr. Karl Ekbom, of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, believes that this study could be very significant if the findings can be repeated.

“This study is a very important contribution to our understanding of the underpinnings of migraine and may have wide-ranging effects in diagnosing and treating migraine if the results are replicated in further studies,” he writes in an editorial accompanying the study.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study investigating a new intranasal treatment for migraine, finding that it lowered use of pain relief medication among 88% of patients.