While it's not clear what causes the damage, the good news is that the lesions don't seem to result in long-term harm to the brain.
NEW YORK — Women who have migraines are more likely to accumulate brain lesions than those who don’t suffer from the debilitating headaches, according to a Dutch study that suggests more research is needed to determine what they mean.
While it’s not clear what causes the damage, seen in the connective fibers of the brain or white matter, the good news is that they don’t seem to result in long-term harm to the brain, researchers said in the study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In the nine-year study, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed that 77 percent of women with migraines had an increase in spots in their brain’s white matter, compared with 60 percent of women who didn’t have migraines. The findings also showed that the lesions don’t affect cognitive function and the number, frequency and severity of the headaches don’t affect the number of spots that appear over time.
“The data make it less plausible that migraine attacks cause the lesions,” said study author Mark Kruit, a neurologist in the Department of Radiology at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, in an email. “The importance of the lesions is probably low because we did not find a clear effect on cognitive abilities. People should not be scared that migraine attacks cause brain changes.”
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About 15 percent of the general population suffers from migraines, the authors wrote. “Preventive migraine therapy should therefore not be started based on our results,” Kruit said.
The lesions are only visible on MRI scans, he said. They may have many different causes and probably can’t be healed.
The lesions weren’t associated with changes in thinking or memory, researchers found. Based on the results, Deborah Friedman, who wrote an accompanying editorial, said migraine sufferers shouldn’t panic.
“These little lesions do show up on the MRI scans not infrequently,” said Friedman, a professor of neurology, neurotherapeutics and ophthalmology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “Based on this study, we don’t think they’re anything to worry about.”
Previous research has shown a higher risk of stroke and heart attack for middle-aged women who have migraine headaches preceded by visual warning symptoms called auras. A September 2008 study in the journal Neurology by researchers in Austria and Italy found that the headache sufferers may have a higher risk of developing deadly blood clots.