Mutations of a single gene could be to blame for both migraines and an unusual sleep disorder, according a new study published in Science Translational Medicine.
The study could explain why people with migraines are often plagued with sleep problems, and could make it easier for identifying new treatments, the researchers say.
For one co-author of the study, the findings are a personal victory given her own history with migraines as a child. Emily Bates, chemistry professor at Brigham Young University, recalled how migraines would cause her to lose her vision, vomit uncontrollably, and “wipe out an entire day”. Back then in the 1990s, scientists knew relatively little about the causes of migraine, so Bates decided as a high-school student to commit her career to finding a cure.
After earning her doctorate from Harvard, Bates eventually got the opportunity she was looking for while working in a lab at the University of California San Francisco (USSF) that studies the genetics of migraines.
Earlier studies have demonstrated that a familial history of migraine can increase your risk of the headache. Researchers from LA were studying a family with a high rate of migraines when they noticed that the family had unusual sleeping patterns. They were early birds who woke up at 5 am and went to bed by 8pm, a sleep disorder known as “advanced sleep phase.”
The scientists discovered that the sleep disorder was tied to a mutation of a gene that helps control circadian rhythms. Later they studied another family who also had a history of migraines and sleep disorders but had a slightly different genetic mutation.
To test whether the gene mutation could cause both sleep troubles and migraine, the researchers studied lab mice carrying the mutated. That’s when Emily Bates was able to study the condition that tormented her childhood.
Bates, along with her fellow USSF researchers, genetically engineered half of the lab mice to have the gene mutation found in the families with migraine and sleep problems. Obviously the researchers couldn’t depend on the mice to explain their headache symptoms, so Bates looked for other signs of migraine like increased sensitivity to heat and touch —which the mutated mice had. Brain scans also revealed that the mice had the same brain changes seen in people with migraine.
These findings could explain the link between migraines and sleep problems, and demonstrate that there’s more to migraine than headache symptoms. The study also adds to the research pointing to a genetic basis of migraines.
The researchers also hope their findings will assist in the development of new treatments for migraine, since drugs are not always work in all patients. But patients don’t need to wait for pharmaceutical treatments; studies show that exercise and chiropractic care can significantly ease the severity and frequency of migraines.
Brennan KC, et al. Casein kinase I? mutations in familial migraine and advanced sleep phase. Science Translation Medicine 2013; 5 (183): doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3005784.
Hamilton, John. A sleep gene has a surprising role in migraines. NPR. May 1, 2013. Accessed May 15, 2013. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/05/01/180074502/a-sleep-gene-has-a-surprising-role-in-migraines.
Paddock, Catharine. Migraine gene found by scientist inspired by her own illness. Medical News Today. May 2, 2013. Accessed May 15, 2013. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/printerfriendlynews.php?newsid=259951