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Reader's Mail: Does Migraine Kill Brain Cells?

Q. I have had migraines since I was seven years old. I am now 33. I feel my memory is not as good as it could be. Can migraines kill brain cells like drugs and alcohol do?

A. As far as we know, migraine does not kill brain cells like drugs and alcohol. But you are not alone in having concerns about memory loss. The feeling of not being able to think straight, or remember as well as before, is one of the more debilitating aspects of frequent migraine. The good news is that the cognitive function of most people with migraine is completely normal when tested in a clinic. It can be very reassuring to have this done. Your neurologist can test cognitive function in a few minutes, and a comprehensive test can be done by a neuropsychiatrist in about two hours if your neurologist recommends it (though usually this is not necessary).

So what is going on? One possibility (not proven, but reasonable) is that migraine taxes the brain without actually impairing its underlying abilities. Think of migraine as a particularly bad stressor or distracter: It occupies the brain, consuming energy and attention in a way that saps your ability to do other things, and leaves you (and your brain) feeling sub-par. What’s the solution? Apart from reassuring yourself that things are working o.k., the best approach is to reduce the number of migraines you experience. You might be a good candidate for preventive medication—ask your neurologist or healthcare professional.

K.C. Brennan, M.D.
David Geffen School of Medicine
UCLA
Los Angeles, CA

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