The study, published online Sunday in the journal Nature Genetics, identified the first genetic risk factor associated with common types of migraines. Until now, scientists didn't have any proof that genetics was involved in migraines.
"This is the first time we have been able to peer into the genomes of many thousands of people and find genetic clues to understand common migraine," study researcher Dr. Aarno Palotie, chair of the International Headache Genetics Consortium at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom, which spearheaded the study, said in a statement.
The researchers found that a certain DNA variant increased the risk for patients developing migraines. That variant encodes a protein that regulates glutamate, a neurotransmitter that sends messages between nerve cells in the brain. However, accumulation of glutamate in between nerve cells in the brain might be a factor in the initiation of migraine attacks.
The gene variant identified in the study was also found to change activity of other genes, including one previously linked to disorders such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.
These findings suggest that prevention of glutamate accumulation may be a key in preventing migraines, according to the researchers.
The results came from two genome-wide association studies. This type of study doesn't necessarily find the genes that cause a disorder, but rather can help to narrow down the genes scientists study in their search for treatments.
Researchers compared the genomes of more than 50,000 people – including both migraine sufferers and people who don't have the headache disorder – from Finland, Germany and the Netherlands.
Onset of migraines typically happens at puberty. Although migraines are most common among people ages 35 to 45, they can affect younger people as well, according to the World Health Organization. They strike one in six women and one in 12 men, and occur when inflammatory chemicals are released around blood vessels and nerves in the head. Nausea and sensitivity to light and sound are common with migraines as well.
The researchers cautioned that further study is needed into the DNA variant they identified and its effect on regulating genes and the mechanisms at work during migraine attacks.
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