Researchers reviewed six population-based studies and 13 clinic-based studies to see if migraine sufferers had an increased risk of brain lesions, white matter abnormalities (WMAs), infarct-like lesions (ILLs), or brain volume changes in both the gray and white matter regions of the brain. Infarct-like lesions – also called “silent” strokes, are changes neurologists usually see on MRI scans that look like minor strokes.
According to the study, the risk of white matter brain lesions increased 68% for those suffering migraines with aura, compared to non-migraine sufferers. Those who suffered from migraines without aura saw that increased risk cut in half (34%), but they too could get lesions in the part of the brain that is comprised of nerve fibers.
Researchers also found white matter abnormalities are not limited to migraines; they also occur in non-migraine headaches. And people with migraines and migraines with aura were also more likely to have brain volume changes than those who don’t suffer from migraines. But what these white matter abnormalities lead to is still unclear. That’s why Ashina says more long-term studies are needed.
“Migraine affects about 10 to 15% of the general population and can cause a substantial personal, occupational and social burden,” said Ashina. “We hope that through more study, we can clarify the association of brain structure changes to attack frequency and length of the disease. We also want to find out how these lesions may influence brain function.”
While migraines might be associated with structural changes in the brain, there’s no cause for concern, Ashima determined. “Studies of white matter changes showed no relationship to migraine frequency or cognitive status of patients.” Dr. MaryAnn Mays, a staff neurologist at the Center for Headache & Pain at the Cleveland Clinic, who was not involved in the research, agreed.
“What this study does demonstrate is yes, brain changes are more common in patients with migraines and probably are more common in patients with migraine aura,” Mays told CNN. “The good news is that … long-term cognitive changes were not seen, even though these brain changes were apparent on imaging.” So do these brain changes pose problem?
“I don’t think overall in the long-term migraine sufferers need to be concerned,” Mays said. “However, clinicians should screen for cardiovascular risk factors that may be apparent and can be modified – such as hypertension and high cholesterol – that could be contributing to white matter lesions that are unrelated to the migraine.” Mays is confident that headache experts are going to continue to monitor these changes to determine if it will have any impact on the health of migraine sufferers.