Can Brain Freeze Solve the Mystery of Migraines?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Amy Stocklein Images / Getty Images

Researchers say they’ve figured out what causes brain freeze — the mind-numbingly painful headache you get while eating ice cream or some other cold food. The finding may shed light on treatments for more severe headaches like migraines, the researchers suggest.

In a presentation on Sunday at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Francisco, a meeting bringing together researchers from six scientific societies, a U.S. team announced that brain freeze appears to be triggered by a sudden change in the flow of blood in the brain’s anterior cerebral artery. The pain comes on when blood flow increases, and subsides as soon as the artery constricts.

(MORE: Study: Migraines May Raise the Risk of Depression in Women)

To study the phenomenon, the researchers recruited 13 healthy adults to drink cold water through a straw aimed at the roof of the mouth. The participants raised their hands when they felt brain freeze and again when the pain disappeared. Meanwhile, the researchers tracked blood flow in their brains and found that the pain was linked to the swelling and constricting of the anterior cerebral artery.

Because the skull is a closed structure, the rapid blood flow could raise pressure and induce pain, the authors explained. The quick contraction that follows may be the brain’s method of bringing down the pressure before it reaches dangerous levels.

“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so [expanding arteries] might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm,” said lead researcher Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System in a statement.

(MORE: A Genetic Link Between Migraines and Depression?)

According to the researchers, brain freeze is an ideal event to study, since it’s simple to trigger and lasts only briefly. Scientists can easily study the event from beginning to end. The team believes similar blood flow changes could be at play during migraines and posttraumatic headaches.

But not everyone agrees on that assessment. Other scientists unaffiliated with the study told ABC News that many headaches are not caused by blood flow changes. For example, migraines are widely considered to be brain disorders, not blood vessel disorders.

“We have known for decades that migraine is caused by nerve dysfunction. There may be vascular changes, but they are only secondary,” Dr. Teshamae Monteith, director of the headache program at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, told ABC News. “Patients experience warning symptoms such as food cravings, frequent yawning, fatigue and neck stiffness a day before the pain, suggesting that migraine is a state of brain dysfunction as opposed to one of vascular dysfunction.”

(MORE: Suffer from Migraines? FDA Says Try Botox Injections)

It may be premature to link brain freeze to other headaches, but by continuing their research the authors hope to confirm their theory and develop new ways to treat painful brain events, including drugs that block sudden blood vessel dilation or zero-in on channels specifically involved in vasodilation during headaches.