Scientists Simulated a Roller Coaster Ride to Understand What Causes Migraine


Jul 28, 2021


Image credit: Unsplash

Migraine presents as a constellation of symptoms such as severe headaches, motion sickness, vestibular (balance) issues, and sensory sensitivity among people. A new study simulated virtual roller coaster rides to observe how brain activity in people with migraines differs from those without migraines — to offer insights into what causes the condition.

Migraines are estimated to affect more than a billion people globally, but the condition remains disproportionately under-diagnosed and is also among the world’s most under-funded in terms of medical research. Despite being one of the oldest known afflictions in the world, till date, there is no exclusive treatment that works as a permanent cure. 

The present study, published in Neurology last week, points to how the brains of people with migraine respond differently to visual motion stimuli — and could pave the way for better treatment options for the condition. 

“People with migraines don’t just have headaches; they also often experience other conditions like motion sickness and dizziness which can really affect their quality of life. So this study really gives us a better idea about what’s going on [in their brains],” Gabriela Carvalho at the University of Luebeck in Germany, who participated in the study, told NewScientist.

To understand this, researchers used an unconventional experiment on a group of 40 people — 20 experienced frequent migraines and 20 did not experience it. The participants were shown audio-visual media of roller coasters to see how their brains responded to the sensory stimuli. Researchers then ran fMRI brain scans on the participants while they experienced the virtual roller coaster in order to study the expected symptoms of motion sickness, dizziness, and nausea in real time. 

They found that the people with migraine experienced a greater incidence and intensity of motion sickness and nausea even when they weren’t experiencing a migraine at the time. Consequently, five areas of the brain showed greater activity than the non-migraine group. These parts of the brain are involved in visual processing, movement, and motor activity. 

“Our findings show that the brain areas related to… processing of migraine pain overlap with brain systems that regulate motion sickness and dizziness,” Carvalho said.

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“This increased activity could relate to abnormal transmission of visual, auditory and sensory information within the brain,” said Dr. Arne May, a neurologist from the University of Hamburg, who was involved in the study, said in a press statement.

Notably, more than 80% of the study’s participants were women; as opposed to earlier where much of the research on migraines so far has focussed on male animal models. This is significant: migraine affects women more than men due to fluctuating estrogen levels playing a key role. Women have experienced a long history of dismissal when they complain of migraine; migraine’s associations with “hysteria” is another symbol of women’s pain not being taken seriously. 

Studies have also shown that there is considerable stigma attached to migraine: the invisibility of it leads to people not being taken seriously for pain that often becomes too debilitating to function. 

With the condition being so poorly understood at present, researchers of the present study also call for more research to confirm their findings, involving larger groups of people. “Many people in neurology and society consider migraine as a benign disease – it is not a cancer, it is not Parkinson’s,” Messoud Ashina, neurology professor from the Danish Headache Centre’s Human Migraine Research Unit, told the BBC. “But if you look at its public and personal impact, migraine is a huge issue.”

For now, researchers plan to use the current findings to look for links between the brain activity from this study to that of an active migraine episode.

“Millions of people regularly experience painful and debilitating migraine headaches that can reduce their quality of life,” said Dr. May. “By identifying and pinpointing these [brain] changes, our research could lead to a better understanding of migraine which could in turn lead to the development of better treatments.”


Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.


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