Breakthrough Study Reveals Hidden Mechanism Behind Migraines

Migraine Headache Brain Illustration

New research uncovers a mechanism linking brain proteins to migraines by affecting sensory nerves, offering insights for potential treatments and explaining why migraines typically affect one side of the head.

A study reveals a new mechanism where proteins released during migraine auras are transported to sensory nerves, triggering migraines, which could lead to innovative treatments. This discovery explains the one-sided nature of migraines and identifies potential new protein targets for therapies.

A new study has uncovered a previously unidentified process where proteins from the brain are transported to specific sensory nerves, triggering migraine attacks. This discovery could lead to novel treatments for migraines and other types of headaches.

More than 800,000 Danes suffer from migraines – a condition characterized by severe headaches in one side of the head. In around a fourth of all migraine patients, headache attacks are preceded by aura – symptoms from the brain such as temporary visual or sensory disturbances preceding the migraine attack by 5-60 minutes.

While we know with some certainty why patients experience aura, it has been a bit of a mystery why they get headaches, and why migraines are one-sided.

Till now. A new study in mice conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Rigshospitalet, and Bispebjerg Hospital is the first to demonstrate that proteins released from the brain during migraine with aura are carried with cerebrospinal fluid to the pain-signalling nerves responsible for headaches.

“We have discovered that these proteins activate a group of sensory nerve cell bodies at the base of the skull, the so-called trigeminal ganglion, which can be described as a gateway to the peripheral sensory nervous system of the skull,” says Postdoc Martin Kaag Rasmussen from the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Copenhagen, who is first author of the study.

At the root of the trigeminal ganglion, the barrier that usually prevents substances from entering the peripheral nerves is missing, and this enables substances in the cerebrospinal fluid to enter and activate pain-signaling sensory nerves, resulting in headaches.

“Our results suggest that we have identified the primary channel of communication between the brain and the peripheral sensory nervous system. It is a previously unknown signaling pathway important for the development of migraine headache, and it might be associated with other headache diseases too,” says Professor Maiken Nedergaard, who is senior author of the study.

The peripheral nervous system consists of all the nerve fibers responsible for communication between the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord – and the skin, organs, and muscles. The sensory nervous system, which is part of the peripheral nervous system, is responsible for communicating information about e.g. touch, itching, and pain to the brain.

The study results offer insight into why migraine is usually one-sided, which has been a mystery to scientists.

“Most patients experience one-sided headaches, and this signaling pathway can help explain why. Our study of how proteins from the brain are transported shows that the substances are not carried to the entire intracranial space, but primarily to the sensory system in the same side, which is what causes one-sided headaches,” says Martin Kaag Rasmussen.

The study was conducted on mice, but also included MR scans of the human trigeminal ganglion, and according to the scientists, there is every indication that the function of the signaling pathway is the same in mice and humans and that in humans too the proteins are carried by cerebrospinal fluid.

Proteins may lead to new treatment options

Using state-of-the-art techniques such as mass spectrometry, which can detect a broad selection of proteins in a given sample, the researchers analyzed the cocktail of substances released during the aura stage of a migraine attack – that is, during the stage of visual disturbances.

“The concentration of 11 percent of the 1,425 proteins we identified in the cerebrospinal fluid changed during migraine attacks. Of these, 12 proteins that had increased in concentration acted as transmitter substances capable of activating sensory nerves,” says Martin Kaag Rasmussen and adds:

“This means that when the proteins are released, they are carried to the trigeminal ganglion via the said signaling pathways, where they bind to a receptor of a pain-signaling sensory nerve, activating the nerve and triggering the migraine attack succeeding the aura symptoms.”

The group of proteins identified by the researchers included CGRP – a protein already associated with migraine and used in existing treatments. However, the researchers also discovered a series of other proteins, which may pave the way for new treatment options.

“We hope the proteins we identified – aside from CGRP – may be used in the design of new preventive treatments for patients that don’t respond to available CGRP antagonists. The next step for us is to identify the protein with the greatest potential,” says Martin Kaag Rasmussen.

He explains that one of the proteins identified is known to play a role in menstrual migraine.

“Initially, we hope to identify the proteins that trigger migraine phenotypes. We will then proceed to do provocation tests on humans in order to determine whether exposure to one of the identified proteins can trigger a migraine attack,” says Martin Kaag Rasmussen and adds:

“It is a good idea to test whether this and other proteins can trigger migraine attacks in humans, because if they can, they may be used as targets in treatment and prevention.”

Reference: “Trigeminal ganglion neurons are directly activated by influx of CSF solutes in a migraine model” by Martin Kaag Rasmussen, Kjeld Møllgård, Peter A. R. Bork, Pia Weikop, Tina Esmail, Lylia Drici, Nicolai J. Wewer Albrechtsen, Jonathan Frederik Carlsen, Nguyen P. T. Huynh, Nima Ghitani, Matthias Mann, Steven A. Goldman, Yuki Mori, Alexander T. Chesler and Maiken Nedergaard, 4 July 2024, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.adl0544

2 Comments on "Breakthrough Study Reveals Hidden Mechanism Behind Migraines"

  1. Does it mean some anti-migraine vaccine is looming on the horizon? If that’s the case, I’ll stick to the migraine, thanks for very much.

  2. Sydney Ross Singer | July 9, 2024 at 4:14 am | Reply

    This article is misleading. The mice did not have auras with migraines. Mouse models of human disease ignore much of what it means to be human. I am a medical anthropologist migraine researcher, and our research, including research from space medicine, shows that migraines are related to sleep position. Actually, it has to do with sleeping with the head too low, increasing brain pressure and reducing brain circulation. Mice do not have the same sleep position issues. See my article Rest in Peace: How the Way You Sleep can be Killing You. https://www.academia.edu/10739979/Rest_in_Peace_How_the_way_you_sleep_can_be_killing_you

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