Many people suffer from migraines — throbbing, painful headaches that last up to 72 hours and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.
Although not fully understood, an imbalance in a brain neurotransmitter is thought to contribute to migraines. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is a chemical in the brain that affects movements, emotions, motivations and sensory perceptions, including the ability to modulate pain.
Now, researchers at the University of Michigan have shown that dopamine levels in the brain fall during a migraine attack relative to their baseline level between attacks, as reported in a recent news release.
The research team performed two PET scans on different days to study eight migraine sufferers during a spontaneous migraine and in between attacks, comparing their brain activity and dopamine levels with and without a headache. On average, these patients were 27 years old and experienced migraines about six times per month. The scientists also imaged eight healthy adults, comparing migraine sufferers to controls.
They found that dopamine levels in the brain fluctuated, temporarily dropping during migraine attacks. They also found that the study participants were more sensitive to non-painful stimuli, such as warmth applied to the forehead, during a migraine.
“With this study, we better understand how dopamine is related to the suffering during a migraine attack,” said Alex DaSilva, DDS, DMedSc, assistant professor of dentistry and of the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan, in the video above. “Lower dopamine levels mean you are more sensitive to pain and stimulation. Second, lower dopamine levels also inhibit your behavior. You want a dark room. You want to avoid social interactions.”
In their paper, the researchers call for additional studies to confirm the results and evaluate how they can be used to develop more effective migraine therapies.
Previously: Headache 101: On migraines, pain medicine and when to visit a doctor and Director of Stanford Headache Clinic answers your questions on migraines and headache disorders