44 genetic variants linked to migraines, 12 have never been seen before

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Potential new treatment avenues for migraine sufferers offer renewed hope for those plagued by these intense headaches, researchers find. Approximately one in five women, one in 16 men, and one in 11 children experience regular migraines, with women being three times more likely to suffer from these attacks.

An international study delving into the genetics of migraines is shedding new light on the biological triggers of these episodes. The research might lead to the discovery of uncommon variants that guard against migraines, offering a chance to develop new treatments, according to scientists in Iceland.

Led by deCODE Genetics, an international team analyzed genetic data from over 1.3 million people, with 80,000 being migraine sufferers. They honed in on genetic sequence variants tied to the two primary migraine types: migraines with aura (commonly known as “classical migraines”) and those without aura. The findings emphasize several genes impacting one subtype more than the other, suggesting new biological pathways to explore for treatment.

While there have been significant strides in understanding the genetics and biology of migraines, and recent treatments have been effective for many, not all migraine types respond to current solutions.

woman in pain migraine
Researchers says several variant genes detected could help open up opportunities for new migraine drug treatments. (credit: Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

This latest study identified 44 genetic variants linked to migraines, with 12 being newly discovered.

“Four novel migraine with aura associations were revealed and 13 variants associated primarily with migraine without aura,” says Professor Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE genetics, in a media release. “Of particular interest were three rare variants with large effects pointing to distinct pathologies underlying different types of migraine. Thus, a rare frameshift variant in the PRRT2 gene confers a large risk of migraine with aura and with another brain disease, epilepsy, but not of migraine without aura.”

The team also found that in the SCN11A gene, known for its role in pain sensation, several rare variants were associated with migraine protection. Meanwhile, a common variant in the same gene presented a mild migraine risk. Furthermore, a rare variant linked to the KCNK5 gene provided significant protection against severe migraines and brain aneurysms. This either points to a shared pathway between the two conditions or suggests that some early brain aneurysm cases might be mistakenly classified as migraines.

“What makes our study unique is that it includes large datasets from sequenced individuals enabling detection of rare variants protecting against migraine, potentially opening an avenue for development of novel drug targets,” concludes Prof. Stefansson.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Genetics.

How to distinguish between a migraine and a regular headache

Migraines are a type of primary headache disorder that can cause severe pain and other symptoms. They are more common than people think, affecting over 39 million people in the United States alone, according to the American Migraine Foundation. While headaches are a common symptom of migraines, they are not the only ones. Migraines can also cause nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and other symptoms.

Headaches are pain in the head, face, or upper neck. They can vary in frequency and intensity and can be caused by a variety of factors, including stress, dehydration, and lack of sleep. Most headaches are not serious and can be relieved with over-the-counter pain relievers.

Migraines are a more complex neurological condition than headaches. They are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Migraine attacks can be debilitating and can last for hours or even days.

There are a few key ways to distinguish migraines from headaches:

  • Severity: Migraine pain is often more severe than headache pain. It can be throbbing or pounding and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Location: Migraine pain is often one-sided, while headache pain can be on both sides of the head or all over the head.
  • Duration: Migraine attacks can last for hours or even days, while headaches typically last for a shorter period of time.
  • Associated symptoms: In addition to headaches, migraines can also cause nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, dizziness, and extreme fatigue. Headaches may not cause any of these associated symptoms.

If you are unsure whether you are experiencing a migraine or a headache, it is important to see a doctor. A doctor can help you to diagnose your condition and recommend appropriate treatment.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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