Genetic roots of migraine uncovered

23 June 2013

In the largest ever study of migraines, researchers have found five genetic regions that for the first time have been linked to the onset of migraine. This study opens new doors to understanding the cause and biological triggers that underlie migraine attacks. 

The international team, including scientists from the Department of Twin Research at King's College London, identified 12 genetic regions associated with migraine susceptibility. Eight of these regions were found in or near genes known to play a role in controlling brain circuitries and two of the regions were associated with genes that are responsible for maintaining healthy brain tissue. The regulation of these pathways may be important to the genetic susceptibility of migraines. 

Migraine is a debilitating disorder that affects approximately 14 per cent of adults. It has recently been recognised as the seventh disabler in the Global Burden of Disease Survey 2010 and estimated to be the most costly neurological disorder. It is an extremely difficult disorder to study because no biomarkers between or during attacks have been identified to date. 

Dr Lydia Quaye from King's College London, said: "This is the largest ever genetic study into migraines and highlights for the first time the possible genetic causes of what can be a devastating condition for many. By looking at almost 120 thousand samples, we have been able to find genes associated with migraine and have pinpointed some mechanisms through which migraine occurs.  This study gives us a greater understanding of the condition and will hopefully pave the way for better diagnosis and potential treatments in the future." 

The team uncovered the underlying susceptibilities by comparing the results from 29 different genomic studies, including over 118,000 samples from both migraine sufferers and control samples. 

They found that some of the regions of susceptibility lay close to a network of genes that are sensitive to oxidative stress, a biochemical process that results in the dysfunction of cells. 

The team expects many of the genes at genetic regions associated with migraine are interconnected and could potentially be disrupting the internal regulation of tissue and cells in the brain, resulting in some of the symptoms of migraine. 

"This study has greatly advanced our biological insight about the cause of migraine," said Dr Aarno Palotie, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "Migraine and epilepsy are particularly difficult neural conditions to study; between episodes the patient is basically healthy so it's extremely difficult to uncover biochemical clues. 

"We have proven that this is the most effective approach to study this type of neurological disorder and understand the biology that lies at the heart of it." 

The paper, Genome-wide meta-analysis identifies new susceptibility loci for migraine, is published in Nature Genetics.

  • The discovery of five genetic regions linked to the onset of migraine is an important step forward in understanding the cause and biological triggers underlying this debilitating disorder. 
  • The largest ever genetic study into migraines, the work was carried out by an international team, including researchers from the UK, USA, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France, Iceland, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Australia.