Serene Branson: It Was Migraine with Aura

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Soon after CBS reporter Serene Branson’s on-air verbal meltdown last Sunday, speculation about its cause began flowing. Many experts reviewing the footage said Branson had demonstrated classic symptoms of stroke or some other neurological event. But according Branson’s doctors at UCLA, the results of a brain scan and blood work ruled out stroke. Instead Branson had suffered a different kind of neurological event: migraine with aura.

Symptoms of migraine with aura can mimic those of a stroke, including weakness, motor-function loss and numbness and tingling. Branson said she had numbness in her right cheek and hand in addition to the communication problems she exhibited on TV. The episode rattled the Emmy-nominated reporter, according to the AP:

Branson told CBS’ “The Early Show” in an interview Friday that she was terrified, scared and confused, and didn’t know what was going on.

“I knew something wasn’t right as soon as I opened my mouth,” she said. “I hadn’t been feeling well a little bit before the live shot. I had a headache, my vision was very blurry. I knew something wasn’t right, but I just thought I was tired. So when I opened my mouth, I thought, ‘This is more than just being tired. Something is terribly wrong.’ I wanted to say, ‘Lady Antebellum swept the Grammys.’ And I could think of the words, but I could not get them coming out properly.”

Branson, who will appear on The Talk on Friday, explained that migraines with aura run in her family. She said she has been suffering from migraines since childhood, but never a bout like the one after the Grammy Awards on Sunday.

“Migraine is clearly genetic and there’s lots of evidence to support that,” says Dr. Richard D. Lipton, director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York, who did not examine Branson. “If you have a close relative with migraine aura, you are more than twice as likely to develop it as well. Also, identical twins share migraine with aura more than fraternal twins.”

The “aura,” which sounds poetic, is instead caused by the disruption in neurological functioning that occurs during migraine, which precedes the headache. “Basically, migraine is a depression of electrical activity in the brain,” says Lipton, explaining how this depression affects one of several distinct areas of the brain, creating different auras. “And a disruption of blood flow as a result of that. This wave of depression spreads over the surface of the brain and gives rise to neurological changes.”

About 18% of women and 6% of men suffer from migraines in the U.S.; of those, about 20% have migraine with aura. Within the realm of migraine aura symptoms, Branson’s were somewhat unusual. Typical symptoms — for about 90% of sufferers — are visual; people report seeing spots of light or zig-zagging lines in their field of vision, followed by excruciating headache. Only about 3% to 4% sufferers exhibit language problems, according to Lipton. Put another way, the rate of migraine aura with verbal symptoms, as Branson had, is about 5.4 per 10,000 American women.

And although it is a relief that Branson did not have a more serious or irreversible neurological problem such as stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), it is important to note that there is a relationship between migraine and stroke. Stroke in young, healthy women like Branson is extremely rare — with a rate of about 10 per 100,000 women. For women who have migraines with aura, however, that rate jumps to 30 per 100,000 women — a statistically significant increase, but still a very rare occurrence.