Brain Blood Flow Changes Could Trigger Brain Freeze, Migraines

Posted April 23rd, 2012 at 11:30 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Owwwww!  How could something that taste's so good... hurt so bad? (Photo: Jayel Aheram via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Owwwww! How could something that taste's so good... hurt so bad? (Photo: Jayel Aheram via Flickr/Creative Commons)

You’ve got a delicious ice cream cone in your hand and you can’t wait to taste it. You quickly take a big bite out of the frozen treat when – BANG – you get this incredibly intense shooting pain in your head.

Some call it an ice cream headache or brain freeze.  Although it can be painful, we’re also comforted to know that it passes quickly.

Past research has shown that those who suffer from migraine headaches tend to get brain freeze more often than those who don’t.

That led an international team of researchers, who study migraines and other types of headaches, to wonder if there’s a common link between brain freeze and migraines.

With this connection in mind,  and because they found it difficult to study migraine headaches directly, due to their unpredictability, the researchers decided to focus their study on brain freeze to gain insight into migraines and other more serious headaches.

Thirteen healthy adults were used as test subjects.  As the subjects  drank ice-cold water to give themselves brain freeze, researchers monitored the blood flow to their brain.

Researchers found one artery in particular, called the anterior cerebral artery, expanded rapidly when the test subjects experienced pain from the onset of brain freeze. This caused the brain to be flooded with blood.  As the pain ebbed, the same artery quickly constricted, reducing the flow of blood to the brain.

From these findings, team leader Dr. Jorge Serrador, of the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and his fellow researchers, speculate that the rapid expansion, and then constriction, of the artery might be some sort of self-defense mechanism for the brain.

“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time,” Serrador says. “It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.  But because the skull is a closed structure, the sudden influx of blood could raise pressure and induce pain. The following vasoconstriction may be a way to bring pressure down in the brain before it reaches dangerous levels.”

Serrador thinks the changes in brain blood flow observed in the study,  could also be at work in serious headaches such as migraines and post-traumatic headaches.

If the study findings are confirmed by further study, new treatments that control the blood flow to the brain could be developed to help those who suffer from serious headaches such as migraines.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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