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Migraine headaches can be painful as well as unpredictable. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Migraine headaches cause intense discomfort and can be challenging to manage. Treatment options focus on prevention, avoiding triggers, and symptom management.
  • A recent study found that specific blood proteins might influence or even cause migraine.
  • This research could open up pathways to new treatment options for people who experience migraine.

Migraine headaches can cause pain and their onset can be unpredictable.

While genetics likely play a role in the development of migraine, more research needs to be done to understand the specific genetic causes of these headaches.

A new study published in Nature Communications reports that specific blood proteins may cause migraine and others can increase a person’s risk for the headaches.

Researchers say this information could lead to the development of new treatment options for people who have migraine.

Migraine headaches typically affect one side of the head. People who experience migraine episodes often describe the pain as throbbing or pulsing.

Migraine affects about 12% of people worldwide. There are different kinds of migraine and the type can impact treatment options.

Sometimes, people have migraine triggers, so prevention can focus on avoiding specific triggers. Some medications can assist in the prevention of migraine attacks. Additional treatments focus on symptom management.

Who gets migraine and why is a bit complex. However, genetics likely play a role.

Dr. Jacob Wesley Ulm, a genetics specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, explained to Medical News Today:

“[The] genetic contribution for migraine is what we in the field call “polygenic” and “multifactorial” — that is, it’s filtered through a very complex and hard-to-tease-out amalgam of numerous genes (potentially dozens or even hundreds) impacted by additional modulators such as sleep, diet, circulation, exercise, and other factors.”

Chris Eijsbout, PhD, a genomic medicine specialist from the University of Oxford and the chief scientific officer for the retailer Mable, offered further insight into the genetics behind migraine to MNT:

“Migraine [is] very heritable. While about 15 to 20% of people suffer from migraine at one point in their lives, there’s about a 50% chance that the child of a couple in which a parent has migraine will inherit the condition. Large-scale studies conducted in the past 5 to 10 years have compared the DNA of people with and without migraine, revealing hundreds of sites in the genome that contribute to one’s risk of developing migraine. We also know these sites have a tendency to lie in genes that are characteristically expressed in cardiovascular and nervous tissues. So there exists genetic evidence for migraine being a neurovascular disorder.”

One area of interest in migraine research is understanding the cause of this condition and how to implement this knowledge into effective treatment options.

Proteins circulate in the blood and these markers can indicate certain disorders.

Sometimes these blood proteins and their levels can cause or be caused by specific conditions.

Researchers in the new study identified several proteins that might cause migraine. Specifically, they identified that high levels of two proteins, DKK1 and PDGFB, might cause the condition. In comparison, lower levels of three other proteins may also cause migraine.

Dale Nyholt, a study author and professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, noted the highlights of the research to MNT:

By leveraging the power of large genetic studies for migraine risk and blood protein levels, we were able to detect an association between the risk of migraine and 58 proteins. Furthermore, we were able to show that five of these proteins have a causal effect on migraine. Thus making these proteins promising targets—e.g., via altering their levels—for the treatment of migraine.

He noted that the data gathered from this study could help to identify migraine risk, diagnose the condition, and possibly open the door for more specific migraine treatments.

Ulm noted two main takeaways from the study data:

“(1) we’re getting closer to a sort of molecular “fingerprint,” potentially ascertainable on blood tests or other diagnostic studies, for people at increased risk of suffering from migraine, and (2) just as importantly, we may also have a window into a new molecular target for therapeutic drugs based on the intricate genetic studies being reported.”

He also offered further insight into how the study authors were able to come to the conclusions that they did:

“The researchers were able to discern that a certain assemblage of blood proteins, with a fingerprint-based on elevations or reductions in particular groupings of proteins being examined, tended to correlate to a remarkable degree with an enhanced or diminished risk of migraine in an individual.”

The study provided valuable information but also had several limitations.

First, researchers mainly collected data from European populations, so the findings might not be as applicable to other groups.

Due to the nature of blood proteins, the results “may not accurately reflect tissue-specific migraine-associated proteins.”

Researchers also noted limitations based on the methods they used. They noted that further research would be helpful to confirm findings and understand aspects of the data more thoroughly.

The information from this study could open up further treatment options for migraine that specifically target the blood proteins and their mechanisms involved. Ulm noted that the mechanism of the protein DKK1 could be particularly interesting when it comes to the development of treatments.

He explained to MNT:

“The specific elevated protein of interest, DKK1, and the cellular pathway it affects, known as Wnt, are both very well-known in cell biology and pharmacological circles. There could thus be significant potential in both developing new drugs and applying existing ones, for example, by reducing DKK1 levels (or activating the Wnt pathway, which is suppressed by DKK1) to introduce better and more specific anti-migraine drugs.”

Ultimately, experts say the study provides hope that better treatments for migraine might be on the way soon.