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Researchers Identify New Genetic Risk Factors for Migraines

Migraines illustration.

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Key Takeaways

  • New research has found a large number of genetic risk factors for developing migraines.
  • Scientists identified 86 new risk factors in people who experience these intense headaches.
  • Doctors say this can pave the way for genetic testing in future migraine detection and treatment.

A large study of migraines has identified a long list of genetic risk factors for developing these intense headaches.

The February 2022 study, which was published in the journal Nature Genetics, analyzed data from about 873,000 people including 102,084 who experienced migraines. The researchers analyzed the patients’ genetics and found 123 risk factors—86 of which were previously unknown. They also uncovered more genetic information on migraine subtypes than researchers were previously aware of.

The researchers wrote that their findings “unequivocally” support that mechanisms in the nerves and blood vessels are behind what causes migraines.

“Migraine affects over one billion people worldwide and causes a lot of disability to people,” study co-author Matti J. Pirinen, PhD, associate professor of statistics at the University of Helsinki, in Finland, told Verywell. “Therefore, it is important to learn about its biological background as the goal is to develop treatments for migraine.”

Pirinen said that the genetic background that leads to migraine “is complex,” but pointed out that he and his fellow researchers “have now identified a couple of genetic risk factors” that influence the likelihood someone will develop migraine with aura—a sensory issue that can cause flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in the hands and face—versus migraine without aura.

What Is a Migraine?

Migraines are thought to be the result of neurological abnormalities caused by genetic mutations in the brain. A migraine headache is usually described as an intense pulsing or throbbing pain in one area of the head, although it can also cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. While doctors used to believe the migraines were linked to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head, they now think that these intense headaches have an underlying genetic cause.

Current Migraine Treatment Options

There is no cure for migraines, but there are medications that can either help prevent them from happening or relieve symptoms.

Preventative medication includes erenumab (Aimovig), which blocks the activity of a molecule that involved in migraine attacks. The medications lasmiditan (Reyvow) and ubrogepant (Ubrelvy) are also used for short-term treatment of migraine with or without aura.

Medications that were originally developed to treat conditions like epilepsy, depression, or high blood pressure have also been helpful, along with botulinum toxin A, also known as Botox. Healthcare providers may also recommend lifestyle remedies like stress management techniques, altering diet, changing medications, and getting consistent sleep.

Doctors will often suggest medications like sumatriptan or ergotamine drugs, and ibuprofen and aspirin during acute migraine attacks.

What This Means For You

If you experience migraines, genetic testing and more tailored medications may be in your future. For now, though, migraine treatments are not specific to your genetic makeup.

How the Findings May Impact Future Migraine Treatment

Researchers have “long recognized” that migraines tend to run in families, Amit Sachdev, MD, medical director in the department of neurology and ophthalmology at Michigan State University, told Verywell. However, he said, knowing “which genes are involved is very useful.”

Medhat Mikhael, MD, a pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Verywell that the latest findings can “definitely” influence future migraine treatment—the technology just needs to catch up first.

Mikhael anticipates there eventually being readily available genetic testing for people with a family history of migraine, “similar to what we do now with certain types of cancer.” And, if patients test positive for certain genetic markers, they could conceivably be put on early treatment.

But testing is not there yet. “Today genetics are not used to decide if you have migraine or how to treat it,” Sachdev said. “This is mostly useful for future research.”

Pirinen noted that, of the new genetic discoveries his research uncovered, two are near genes that are already targeted by effective migraine drugs—CGRP-inhibitors or lasmiditans. “This suggests that there could be other potential drug targets among the new genetic discoveries, and provide a clear rationale for future genetic studies with even larger sample sizes,” he said.

Overall, Mikhael said that there’s more work that needs to be done with migraine treatment. Still, he added, “it’s an exciting time.”

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2 Sources
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  1. Hautakangas H, Winsvold BS, Ruotsalainen SE, et al. Genome-wide analysis of 102,084 migraine cases identifies 123 risk loci and subtype-specific risk allelesNature Genetics. 2022. doi: 10.1038/s41588-021-00990-0

  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Migraine information page.