Some 14 percent of all adults experience regular migraine attacks. The changes that take place in their brains can now be detected in brain scans. (Photo: Colourbox)

Brain scans can detect migraine

Migraine attacks cause a lasting change in the brain, and this change can be detected in a brain scan, new study reveals. This helps doctors to determine whether or not a person is actually suffering from migraine.

A new study shows that migraines can be detected using brain scans.

Up to now, doctors have had to make the diagnosis based on the patients’ description of the pain in their heads.

The new study shows that migraines actually change a part of the brain – and that these changes can be viewed on a screen that’s connected to a brain scanner.

”Many researchers have studied whether migraine can cause changes in the brain structure. We have now carried out a meta-analysis that reviews all the all the relevant academic articles in this field,” says Messoud Ashina, MD, of the Danish Headache Centre at Glostrup Hospital, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

It appears that people with migraines have some changes in what we call the brain’s white matter.

Messoud Ashina

”It appears that people with migraines have some changes in what we call the brain’s white matter.”

The brain changes do not make you dumb

Migraine sufferers shouldn’t worry too much, though. There may be small changes in the brain if you have a migraine attack, but these changes will only be noticed in a brain scan.

”The good news is that there’s no indication that these changes have a negative effect on people’s intellectual abilities,” says Ashina.

”The changes do not correlate with the frequency of the migraine attacks or how many years a person has been suffering from migraines. We also did not find any correlation with how much migraine medication is used.”

If you slice up a brain, you will see that some areas are white and some are grey. These areas are known as white and grey matter, respectively.

Grey matter is used to control our bodily functions, and it is thanks to this grey matter that we can relate to our surroundings.

White matter sends messages to and from the grey matter. If the brain were a computer network, the white matter would be the cables between the devices.

She adds that the brain changes are slightly more common in migraine patients with aura than those without aura.

A highly reliable study

Meta-studies such as this one are considered to be more solid than conventional experiments and studies, as meta-studies draw their conclusions based on all the important experiments and studies that have been carried out within a certain field of research.

”We have studied all the relevant articles and looked at some specific parameters, including whether people with migraines have changes in the brain’s white matter,” says the researcher.

The study consisted of:

  • Six studies that are based on the long-term disease history of a group of patients.
  • Thirteen studies based on clinical trials.

When comparing these studies, the researchers prioritised those that lived up to the international criteria for migraine research. This ensured that the findings from the most thorough studies played the biggest role in the conclusions.

Bonus discovery: migraine does not cause blood clots

In their review of the literature, the researchers made two additional discoveries to add to the one about the brain’s white matter:

  1. There is no evidence that people with migraines have an increased risk of blood clots in the brain, as had been suspected for some time in medical circles. This discovery will therefore change the way doctors approach patients with blood clots. If, in the future, a doctor discovers a blood clot in a patient’s brain, the doctor should examine the patient for lifestyle problems such as obesity, diabetes or tobacco use. Migraine is not a possible cause of the blood clot.
  2. The brain’s grey matter as well as the white matter appears to change in terms of volume in people with migraines. However, nobody knows what this means or whether it has any particular consequences for the patient’s quality of life.

”Migraine is a very, very complex disorder. We need a lot more research and funding if we want to fully understand this complexity,” says Ashina.

”But it’s important that we learn more about the disorder, as it affects people in the most productive years of their lives and that carries with it great societal and personal costs.”


Read the Danish version of this article at

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