Hope for Headaches

I was pretty lucky to miss a migraine gene (or out of respect for PZ Myers, should I say, a migraine-susceptibility mutation). My father has one, and suffers a lot, as does my sister. Apparently in the economic effects in which we tend to measure things these days migraines are amongst the most damaging conditions in the developed world.

In March Australasian Science ran a piece on research into one particular genetic cause of migraines. I’d have to say it was not one of our better structured articles – there was a lot of really interesting content, but set out in a way that meant I didn’t understand much of it after a second reading (not good for a popular science magazine) and the part I think of most widespread interest was buried near the bottom.

That part was evidence that folate intake could be protective against some migraines. Now usually when we cover these stories what you get is something like a 10-20% reduction in some disease as a result of nutritional changes. But in this case the changes were dramatic. Less than half as many migraines for those on folate supplements than the control group, and reduced severity for those that did occur. It all sounded a bit too good to be true.

This week I interviewed Professor Lyn Griffiths about some other work she’s done (with much less short term significance) and I got a chance to clarify. The news is both worse and better than it might have seemed from the article. The bad news is that folate only works against one specific migraine-susceptibility gene, which Griffith thinks applies to about 20% of sufferers. The good news is that the changes for those with that gene really are that dramatic. In fact, Griffiths thinks that even those people who didn’t show a major reduction may just have needed higher doses.

Since most of us should be getting more folate anyway, it’s not like there is much danger of side effects, or even a lot of expense (getting tested to see if this gene defect is causing your migraines may be expensive, but it’s not really necessary). So my suggestion is, if you suffer from migraines, break out the broccoli (or if you prefer, beer).

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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