BRISBANE, Australia — People dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, often experience migraine headaches too. While these two conditions frequently happen together, researchers say no one has looked for a connection between them — until now. A new study finds that both PTSD and migraines result from changes in the same genes in a patient’s DNA.
Specifically, epigenetic changes to similar genes in the body can lead to both conditions, which is why many patients with PTSD suffer debilitating headaches. Epigenetics refers to the influence our environment has on the way the body expresses certain genes. So how can scientists know for sure that changes in one person won’t affect someone else’s genes differently? For that, study authors turned to the perfect test subjects to measure genetic changes — twins.
Identical twins don’t just look alike, they have the exact same DNA too. As time goes on however, different experiences, environmental exposure, and even traumas can lead to different epigenetic changes in these siblings.
PTSD is psychiatric disorder which usually develops after someone experiences a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or a life-threatening incident. However, the vast majority of people never experience PTSD after such traumas, leading study authors to suspect something must be happening at the genetic level.
The same genes can react differently to trauma
With this in mind, researchers studied six pairs of twins, one dealing with PTSD and the other without the condition. The team also examined 15 other pairs of twins in which one of the siblings experiences migraines.
Through blood samples, scientists analyzed each pair’s genes for signs of altered activity in the sibling experiencing PTSD or headaches. Those results discovered common genes which appear to play a role in triggering both conditions. Researchers add this may explain why both migraines and PTSD occur simultaneously and lead to a genetic treatment for both.
“Our results suggest that common genes and signaling pathways are involved in PTSD and migraine and this might explain why PTSD and migraine can co-occur frequently,” reports Professor Divya Mehta of the Queensland University of Technology, in a media release. “This might further imply that common environmental risk factors for both PTSD and migraine might be acting on these genes.”
Study authors add epigenetic changes provide scientists with a prime target for new medications, since these influences on our DNA are often reversible.
“These results may have implications for treatments, as one medicine or therapy might only be effective for a single disorder,” Mehta concludes. “For co-occurring disorders such as PTSD and migraine, once we know which common genes are implicated in both disorders, we can develop new therapeutics to target these, thereby reducing symptoms and curing both.”
The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.