Migraines' Brain Changes Not Linked to Mental Harm

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 13, 2012 -- Women who get migraines are more likely than those who don't to develop small areas of tissue changes in their brains, a new study shows. At the same time, these changes do not seem to affect the women's thinking or memory.

For years, researchers have wondered whether migraine headaches might leave a lasting impact on the brain. "There's a big question, which is, 'Is migraine progressive?'" says neurologist Richard Lipton, MD. Lipton directs the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City. He was not involved in the research.

The new study found evidence that migraines might be tied to having more structural changes in the brain for some people.

While other studies have linked these types of brain findings to memory loss and dementia, researchers say they didn't see any signs of those declines among women in this study.

"On the one hand this study is a little bit comforting, but also a little bit concerning because we need a bigger study addressing these issues to get more definitive answers," says Lipton.

The study is published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Migraines and Brain Changes

The study followed 203 people diagnosed with migraines and 83 people who didn't get those kinds of headaches. People in the study ranged in age from 43 to 72. The average age of migraine sufferers was 57.

Researchers asked people in the study how often and how bad their migraines were. They also asked about a host of health issues that are known to affect the brain, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.

People had MRI scans at the start of the study and nine years later to look for any changes.

The type of brain damage measured in the study shows up as small bright spots on an MRI scan.

"You could regard them as small areas of scar tissue," says researcher Mark C. Kruit, MD, PhD. Kruit is a neuroradiologist at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Kruit stresses that the amount of damage noted for the study participants was small, overall.

"An important message from the study is that there seems no need for more aggressive [migraine] treatment or prevention of attacks," he says in a news release.

There was no significant association between migraines and changes seen for men.

But among women, those who got migraines were about twice as likely to develop new areas of scar tissue as those who did not get the headaches. About 77% of women in the migraine group had more changes on their second scan compared to 60% of the women who didn't get migraines.

When researchers tested brain function, they found no significant differences between people who got migraines and those who did not.

"I think it's good news," says Deborah I. Friedman, MD, MPH. Friedman is a neurologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She wrote an editorial on the study but was not involved in the research.

"Yes, there was progression of the lesions. On the other hand, the overall burden of the lesions is really small. It doesn't even come close to what we get concerned about with dementia and stroke risk," Friedman tells WebMD.

"I don't think in patients with migraine, there's any reason to panic," she says.

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SOURCES: Palm-Meinders, I. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 13, 2012. Friedman, D. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 13, 2012. Mark C. Kruit, MD, PhD, neuroradiologist, Leiden University Medical Center, the Netherlands. Deborah I. Friedman, MD, MPH, professor of neurology, neurotherapeutics and ophthalmology, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Richard Lipton, MD, director, Montefiore Headache Center, New York City. News release, National Institutes of Health.

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