Women who suffer from migraine headaches are more likely to develop brain lesions, but don’t experience any changes in their cognitive ability, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The nine year study by Dutch researchers followed 286 people with and without migraines. The average age was 57 and most of the participants were women.
Researchers found that 77 percent of the women with migraines had more lesions in their brain’s white matter, compared with 60 percent of women who didn’t have migraines. Women with migraines were also twice as likely to have an increase in the volume of brain lesions, but the increase was very small. There was no difference in outcome found among the men.
The women’s lesions didn’t appear to affect cognitive function, and the number, frequency and severity of the headaches they suffered didn’t affect the number of spots that appeared over time.
“The fact that there is no evidence of cognitive loss among these women is good news,” said Linda Porter, PhD, a pain health science policy advisor in the Office of the Director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which provided funding for the study.
“We’ve known for a while that women with migraine tend to have these brain changes as seen on MRI. This nine-year study is the first of its kind to provide long-term follow-up looking for associated risk.”
The findings update observations from a 2000 investigation that found women with migraines were more likely to have scattered areas of white matter changes on MRI scans.
Migraines affect about 15 percent of the population, and women are three times more likely to get them than men.
In the current study, cognitive abilities such as memory, concentration, and attention did not show significant losses among people with migraine-associated lesions. The brain changes that cause the white spots seen on MRIs are unknown. The researchers said more studies are needed to find out if the spots raise the risk of strokes.
“An important message from the study is that there seems no need for more aggressive treatment or prevention of attacks,” said Mark C. Kruit, MD, one of the principal investigators, and a neuroradiologist from Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
“The findings imply that small white matter in most patients with migraine should not be a reason for alarm,” wrote Dr. Deborah Friedman of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Dr. David Dodick of the Mayo Clinic. Friedman and Dodick co-authored an accompanying editorial to the study published in JAMA.
The doctors point out that given the relationship between migraine and several acquired and genetic blood vessel disorders, it is possible that some patients with migraines may be at an increased genetic risk for significant white matter disease.