Despite migraine being the third most prevalent illness worldwide, the underlying causes of the condition have been unclear. Now, in what is deemed the largest genetic study of migraine to date, researchers have uncovered 28 new genetic variants that may fuel migraine development.
Published in Nature Genetics, the study reveals that many of these genetic variants are inside or nearby genes that either govern the vascular system or have been associated with vascular disease.
The study researchers – all of whom are members of the International Headache Genetics Consortium (IHGC) – say their findings provide further evidence that migraine can arise as a result of impaired blood vessel function.
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, around 1 in 4 households in the United States include someone who experiences migraine.
Many people perceive migraine simply as a “bad headache,” but this is not the case. A migraine attack can cause severe throbbing on one or both sides of the head, and this may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to sound and light, visual problems, and tingling or numbness of the face.
Such symptoms can last anywhere from 4-72 hours, and at times, they can be so severe that a hospital visit is required; each year, around 1.2 million visits to the emergency room in the U.S. are due to acute migraine attacks.
Current treatments for migraine focus on alleviating symptoms of the condition, but they do not work for everyone. Because little is known about what causes migraine, identifying new treatments or a cure is challenging.
Prof. Aarno Palotie, co-author of the new study and leader of the IHGC, and colleagues say their findings could bring us closer to such a feat.
The team analyzed the DNA of 59,674 adults with migraine, comparing it with the DNA of 316,078 adults without migraine. Participants were from Europe, the U.S., and Australia.
From their analysis, the researchers identified a total of 38 genetic variants associated with migraine (resource no longer available at www.nature.com), of which 28 had never before been reported.
Furthermore, on closer assessment of the regions in which these genetic variants were located, the team found that the majority of them overlapped with genes that have been linked to vascular disease, or that are known to regulate the vascular system.
This finding, say the authors, supports the idea that migraine attacks are partly driven by abnormalities in blood vessels.
The researchers hope their discovery of new migraine-related genetic variants will pave the way for novel treatments.
“These genetic findings are the first concrete step towards developing personalized, evidence-based treatments for this very complex disease. We doctors have known for a long time that migraine patients differ from each other and the drugs that work for some patients are completely inefficient for others.
In the future, we hope that this information can be utilized in dividing the patients into different genetic susceptibility groups for clinical drug trials, thus increasing the chances of identifying the best possible treatment for each subgroup.”
Co-author Prof. John-Anker Zwart, Oslo University Hospital, Norway