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Researchers Uncover Genetic Link to Migraines

Neurons in the brain. Dr Jonathan Clarke, Wellcome Images

There may be a very simply reason why some people are prone to migraine headaches while others wind up getting a free pass: It's in the genes.

Scientists report in the current edition of the journal Nature Genetics that they have identified the first-ever genetic risk factor associated with common types of migraines.

"This is the first time we have been able to peer into the genomes of many thousands of people and find genetic clues to understand common migraine," said Dr Aarno Palotie, chair of the International Headache Genetics Consortium at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, in a statement.

About one in six women and one in twelve men report migraine problems. It's also estimated to be the most expensive brain disorder to society in the United States and the European Union.

The researchers compared the genomes of more than 3,000 people in Finland, Germany and The Netherlands with a sample population of 10,000 people who don't come down with the headaches. Their analysis focused on the connection between a gene known as EAAT2 and an associated protein whose job it is to clear glutamate from brain synapses in the brain. Scientists say that the EAAT2 gene has figured in other neurological diseases, including epilepsy, schizophrenia and various mood and anxiety disorders.

WHO Report on Migraines

But at this juncture, the researchers are being cautious about drawing conclusions.

"Although we knew that the EAAT2 gene has a crucial role to play in neurological processes in human and potentially in the development of migraine, until now, no genetic link has been identified to suggest that glutamate accumulation in the brain could play a role in common migraine," said study co-senior author, Christian Kubisch of the University of Ulm, Germany. "This research opens the door for new studies to look in depth at the biology of the disease and how this alteration in particular may exert its effect."