Penn Study: Migraine is Associated with Variations in Structure of Brain Arteries

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Media Contact:Kim Menard | Kim.Menard@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-662-6183July 26, 2013

The network of arteries supplying blood flow to the brain is more likely to be incomplete in people who suffer migraine, a new study by researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reports. Variations in arterial anatomy lead to asymmetries in cerebral blood flow that might contribute to the process triggering migraines.

The arterial supply of blood to the brain is protected by a series of connections between the major arteries, termed the "circle of Willis" after the English physician who first described it in the 17th century.   People with migraine, particularly migraine with aura, are more likely to be missing components of the circle of Willis.  

Migraine affects an estimated 28 million Americans, causing significant disability. Experts once believed that migraine was caused by dilation of blood vessels in the head, while more recently it has been attributed to abnormal neuronal signals.  In this study, appearing in PLOS ONE, researchers suggest that blood vessels play a different role than previously suspected: structural alterations of the blood supply to the brain may increase susceptibility to changes in cerebral blood flow, contributing  to the abnormal neuronal activity that starts migraine.

"People with migraine actually have differences in the structure of their blood vessels - this is something you are born with," said the study's lead author, Brett Cucchiara, MD, Associate Professor of Neurology. "These differences seem to be associated with changes in blood flow in the brain, and it’s possible that these changes may trigger migraine, which may explain why some people, for instance, notice that dehydration triggers their headaches."

In a study of 170 people from three groups - a control group with no headaches, those who had migraine with aura, and those who had migraine without aura - the team found that an incomplete circle of Willis was more common in people with migraine with aura (73 percent) and migraine without aura (67 percent), compared to a headache-free control group (51 percent). The team used magnetic resonance angiography to examine blood vessel structure and a noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging method pioneered at the University of Pennsylvania, called Arterial spin labeling (ASL), to measure changes in cerebral blood flow.

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