Migraines: A Harbinger of Brain Activity?

A new study of more than 1,000 women found that those with migraine headaches scored better on a word recall test than those without migraines over an extended period.

It may be that a causal factor for migraines leads to more intense brain activity and less reduction in performance. Anecdotally, those with bouts of migraines tend to be highly intelligent - some people who have suffered from them include Virginia Woolf, Catherine the Great, Emily Dickinson, Sigmund Freud, Frederic Chopin, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Darwin, Tolstoy, Joan Didion, and the mathematician John Nash. In ancient times, Alexander the Great reputedly experienced migraines (Plutarch). Migraines have been found in other studies to be associated with menstrual periods.

Researchers say medications for migraine, diet and behavior changes may play a role in helping women with migraines protect their memory. The findings are being published in the April 24, 2007, issue of Neurology (abstract), the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

For the community based study, 1,448 women, of which 204 had migraine, underwent a series of cognitive tests beginning in 1993 and again approximately 12 years later.

The study found while women with migraine performed worse on cognitive tests, such as word recall, at the beginning of the study, their performance declined 17 percent less over time than women without migraine. In other words, the migraine group outperformed the control group. In the group with migraines those over age 50 showed the least amount of cognitive decline on a test used to assess cognitive functioning.

"Some medications for migraine headaches, such as ibuprofen, which may have a protective effect on memory, may be partially responsible for our findings, but it's unlikely to explain this association given we adjusted for this possibility in our study and the medications showed no indication of a significant protective effect," said study author Amanda Kalaydjian, PhD, MS, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

Dr. Kalaydjian says another factor that needs to be explored is the possibility that women with migraines may change their diet or behavior in some way that might improve cognition. "For example, alternative treatment for migraine includes adequate sleep, as well as behavioral and relaxation techniques, and a reduction in caffeine," said Dr. Kalaydjian.

"Despite these theories, it seems more likely that there may be some underlying biological mechanism, such as changes in blood vessels or underlying differences in brain activity, which results in decreased cognitive decline over time," said Dr. Kalaydjian. "More research is needed to fully understand how migraine affects cognition."

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