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World Brain Day: Can you reverse the cerebral damages caused by migraine?

Migraine is one of the most under-diagnosed neurological conditions. © Shutterstock

As we celebrate the World Brain Day today, here is all you need to know about how migraine affects your brain and ways to reverse the changes brought by this condition.

Written by Juhi Kumari |Published : July 22, 2019 6:02 PM IST

Migraine attack is a nightmare for all who suffer it. This neurological disorder characterised by unbearable headache affects one in seven people, globally. This is what estimates of World Federation of Neurology, UK states. The findings of the Migraine Research Foundation, on the other hand, suggest that migraine is the third most prevalent illness in the world. Apart from being excruciatingly painful, this condition comes with a crucial drawback. It almost paralyses our functional life. However, it is still one of the most under-diagnosed neurological conditions. That is why the theme of World Brain Day 2019 is Migraine: The Painful Truth. The global campaign aims to spread awareness about migraine this year.

World Brain Day is celebrated every year on 22nd July. Initiated by the World Federation of Neurology, this day is designed to spread public awareness about different brain disorders. The annual observance of World Brain Day started from 2014.

What is migraine all about?

The exact cause of migraine is still unknown, but doctors believe that certain suspected factors create an imbalance in the brain chemicals and blood vessels. All these factors combine together to affect the cerebral nerves causing migraine. Some of these factors include hormonal changes, stress, anxiety, insufficient sleep, neck tension, alcohol, caffeine intake, certain medications, etc. According to scientists, risk factors of migraine include family history, sex, hormonal changes, and your age.

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The four stages of migraine

As we celebrate World Brain Day today, let's take a deep dive into this condition. If you catch migraine during your childhood or early adulthood, it usually progresses through four stages namely prodrome, aura, attack, and post-drome. Prodrome indicates the signs and symptoms (constipation, mood change, neck stiffness, frequent urination etc.) that you experience one or two days before migraine hits you. Aura can occur both before or/and during the condition and lasts for several minutes. During this phase, you will find difficulty in speaking, vision problem, needle sensation, uncontrollable jerking, etc. The attack lasts for 72 hours if left untreated and is characterized by pain on one side of your head, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and a throbbing pain. Post-drome is basically the stage after the attack has gone. During this phase you may feel confused, drained, or even happy. During this time, you may feel the pain again briefly if you do sudden head movement.

How migraine affects your brain

A significant study in the field of neurology found an increased appearance of white-matter abnormalities in people who experienced migraine with aura compared to non-migraineurs. The aura phase is important as experiencing attack followed by it can lead to serious cognitive decline. Scientists found that migraine can cause an increase in the volume of some parts of the brain while shrinking the volume in other parts. According to a study published in the journal Radiology, "brain abnormalities in migraine sufferers may be either present at birth or develop over time." The study also states that the condition potentially leads to a decay in the cortical regions of the brain if the pain persists for a longer duration. Notably, these parts consist of a thin grey matter that covers the surfaces of the brain hemisphere. This grey matter is responsible for processing memory, perception, pain, thought, social abilities, language, problem solving and advanced motor functions. During the research, scientists found that abnormalities in the cortical surface were more pronounced than those in the cortical thickness among subjects with migraines.

Notably, women are three times more at risk of developing migraine than men, finds Migraine Research Foundation. Women with migraine have been found to have an increased number of brain lesions than thos without the condition, according to a study published in the journal JAMA. Brain lesions are associated with cognitive decline, atherosclerotic disease, and an increased risk of ischemic stroke.

Reversing the damage

Yes, you can reverse the damage that migraine does to your brain. We all know that this has the potential to kill brain cells. This may result due to migrainous infarction, a condition that can lead to stroke, cutting the blood supply to your brain cells. However, this happens only in rare cases. Usually, your brain changes and forms new pathways. In case of chronic migraine pain, your brain remembers that pain is normal and hence perpetuates it. This is how chronic migraine affects your brain. However, the effects and changes that migraine brings to your brain are temporary and easily reversible. Your brain cells like cells have the ability to divide and repair the damage that has been done.

Ways to reverse brain changes

It is needless to say that stress is one of the main factors behind migraine and brain volume loss. So, the first thing you need to do in order to get the lost brain volume back is to manage your stress. To do that, you must avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Also, getting enough sleep (7 to 9 hours sleep), and practising yoga (mindfulness-based meditation) can help.

Apart from this, you should indulge in regular exercise as workout increases the levels of a brain chemical called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This chemical stimulates brain cells to divide and helps in recovering the lost volume caused by migraine pain or stress. Exercise also helps in improving your brain's cognitive function, treating depression, improving your sleep pattern, and the overall quality of life. Additionally, you can go for cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy helps you manage stress, anxiety, and depression, factors responsible for the onset of migraine.

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