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Scientists Study Brain Freeze to Better Understand Headache

Most people who have experienced the fleeting headache that ice cream and cold drinks can cause have likely thought of the pain as a minor nuisance. That type of headache—dubbed “brain freeze”—may, however, play an important scientific role. Researchers are studying it to better understand migraine and other headache disorders, including those affecting soldiers after a blast-related head injury.

Many types of headache are difficult to study in a laboratory setting, but that is not true of brain freeze headaches, which can be readily induced.

In a recent study, researchers evaluated 13 volunteers as they drank cold water through a straw and indicated when they felt brain-freeze pain and when the pain subsided. Researchers monitored the blood flow to their brains and found that blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe through the anterior cerebral artery increased, enlarging the size of the artery and raising pressure inside the skull. As the pain subsided, the artery constricted.

The researchers are unsure what causes the pain itself. It could result from the change in the pressure within the skull when the artery dilates, or from the trigeminal nerve in the roof of the mouth delivering pain signals. It may also simply be that the brain is sensitive to temperature changes.

“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm,” said lead researcher Jorge Serrador, PhD, of the Harvard Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System.

Researchers believe it is possible that similar blood flow issues could contribute to other types of headache, Serrador said, including migraine and posttraumatic headache. If that is the case, new treatments could be developed to control the blood flow and ease the pain.

Some experts in the field express caution about this study, in part because migraine is considered to be caused by a dysfunction of nerves, with changes to blood vessels playing a secondary role.

Dr. Seymour Diamond, executive chairman and co-founder of the National Headache Foundation, has also expressed caution about the findings. In a recent interview with CNN, he noted that most studies have found no link at all between migraine and brain freeze.

“I’m wary of the results,” Dr. Diamond said. “I don’t think it is going to be a breakthrough for migraine or post-concussion headache.”

The study was presented last month at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Francisco, which included researchers from six scientific societies. Further study is planned.

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