Shocking scans from new study show how debilitating migraines affect brain

Shocking scans have revealed a major clue that could help solve the ongoing mystery of why certain people experience debilitating migraines.

A migraine is usually characterised by a moderate or severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head.

Common symptoms include severe pain, nausea, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction.

Around 4.9 million people in Australia suffer from migraines. Of those, 71 per cent are women and 86 per cent are of working age – while 7.6 per cent are chronic sufferers, experiencing pain at least 15 days a month, according to a 2018 report.

The cost to the wider economy in Australia is around $35.7 billion. This consists of $14.3 billion of health system costs, $16.3 billion of productivity costs, and $5.1 billion of other costs.

To date, exactly what causes migraines has remained a “mystery”, with experts desperately trying to shed light on the debilitating condition that affects at least 15 per cent of the world’s population.

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But now a new study has made a discovery it hopes may help bring relief to those people. MRI images taken of people who suffer with the painful condition have revealed they have enlarged fluid-filled spaces surrounding blood vessels in central regions of the brain.

US researchers believe this could suggest sufferers have problems flushing waste from the brain and the nervous system, The Sun reports.

Wilson Xu, doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and co-author of the study, told USA Today: “Seeing this kind of relationship between increased amounts of [perivascular spaces] in a certain region of the white matter in the brain, we think that there might be some sort of connection between migraine and this waste clearance system.”

Mr Xu said researchers are “unsure of the exact relationship between migraines and perivascular spaces”, but it could involve blood flow in the brain or have other implications.

“We think that when a migraine happens, it could cause these changes, and these changes could lead to some of the symptoms and things that we experience when we have a migraine,” he said.

“These changes have never been reported before.”

Although the nature of the link between oversized perivascular spaces and migraine is unclear, the results suggest that a migraine comes with a problem with the brain’s plumbing, the researchers explained.

This is because the brain’s waste emptying process, known as the glymphatic system, uses perivascular channels for transport.

“The results of our study could help inspire future, larger-scale studies to continue investigating how changes in the brain’s microscopic vessels and blood supply contribute to different migraine types,” Mr Xu said.

“Eventually, this could help us develop new, personalised ways to diagnose and treat migraine.”

The results of the study, which looked at the brains of 25 people aged between 25 and 60 years old, will be presented next week in full at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago, US.

Participants were healthy and did not have a cognitive impairments or mental health conditions.

Some had frequent migraines, others reported occasional migraines and others reported no symptoms at all.

All of the participants underwent a high resolution brain scan known as a 7T scan, which produces higher resolution images than an MRI.

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