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Headache Genetics: First Genetic Marker for Migraines Discovered

written by: bjlbyron•edited by: Emma Lloyd•updated: 6/28/2011

Hundreds of millions are affected by migraine headaches and current drugs for treating them are suboptimal. it has long been thought that better treatments will come once their underlying genetic cause(s) are known. This article describes the recent discovery of the first migraine genetic marker.

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    What are Migraines, Who is Affected By Them, and Why Is it Important to Study Their Genetic Cause?

    Migraines are extremely painful headaches and are caused by a neurological disorder in the brain. About 300 million people worldwide suffer from recurring migraines, with 8 percent of the male population and a whopping 17 percent of the female population being inflicted with this painful disorder. While drugs for treating migraines exist, these drugs are not optimal (users can experience side effects and the drugs do not entirely dull the pain in all individuals). Knowledge of the genetic cause (or causes) of migraines could lead to the development of a treatment that not only renders each migraine patient pain-free and does not have side effects after a migraine arises, but also one that prevents migraines from even arising at all.

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    What is Known About the Genetic Cause(s) of Migraines and How is this Information Potentially Useful?

    Scientists who study migraines have long felt that they have an underlying genetic cause or multiple genetic causes, but until recently, migraine genetic markers have remained elusive. In late August 2010, however, researchers at the International Headache Genetics Consortium reported their discovery of a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), designated rs1835740. They also reported that their data, which was obtained from more than 5,000 people known to suffer from migraines and 50,000 people known to be migraine-free, supports it as a marker for susceptibility to migraines.

    This SNP is located between two genes that are thought to play a role in glutamate production. This is particularly interesting because it has been known for some time that glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter, is associated with migraines. Specifically, it is thought that glutamate may play a key role in generating certain electrical waves which are problematic in the brains of those who are prone to migraines. This SNP therefore may affect normal function of one or both of these genes.

    Using the recent discovery of this SNP and knowledge of its close proximity to two glutamate genes as a springboard, scientists now may try to develop therapies that involve one or both of these genes. For example, these therapies may include administering the proteins that are encoded by these genes, or possibly even the genes themselves should gene therapy techniques improve, to migraine patients, or they may include administering one or more other medicines that regulate (either stimulate or reduce) the activity of these genes to migraine patients.

    While it may be some time before it is known whether the recent discovery of this first migraine genetic marker will lead to an improved therapy for migraine sufferers, hopefully those who are inflicted with this condition will take comfort in knowing that much is being done to help their plight.

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    V. Anttila et al., Genome-wide association study of migraine implicates a common susceptibility variant on 8q22.1, Nature Genetics (2010):