Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology

Mice tackling migraines

Updated Tuesday 15th December 2009

Kat Arney explains how mice have helped make a breakthrough in migraine research.

Kat Arney: Migraines can be extremely debilitating as any sufferer will know, but the trouble is we still don’t really know what causes them, and now researchers writing in the latest edition of the journal Neuron have made a step forward in understanding what may make the brain vulnerable to migraine attacks.

Chris Smith: What have they found?

Kat: This is work by Daniela Pietrobon and her colleagues in Italy and the Netherlands. Now, we know from previous research that the so-called aura in migraine, this is a visual disturbance, is caused by something called cortical spreading depression; this is an electrical wave that passes across the brain. Now, it was thought that this wave is basically what brings on the migraine, and in this work the researchers studied mice with a gene fault called FHM1. This is the same fault that causes a condition in humans called familial hemiplegic migraine, and these mice also showed cortical spreading depression, so they’re thought to be a pretty good model for human migraine.

Laboratory mouse Creative commons image Icon Rick Eh? used under Creative Commons licence. under Creative-Commons license
Laboratory mouse.

Now the scientists studied the brains of these mice in depth, and they discovered that the brains with the FHM mutation showed high levels of release of a neurotransmitter called glutamate, and this is the main chemical in the brain that excites or activates nerve cells, but when the researchers dropped the levels of glutamate in these FHM mice, the mice didn’t show cortical spreading depression, so presumably weren’t experiencing these migraines.

Chris: One thing to say, it’s true in mice though, what about in humans?

Kat: Well, the research does show that the overactive release of glutamate might explain why this cortical spreading depression is more likely in the mice with the mutation. It does suggest that perhaps migraines are down to imbalance between activation and suppression of nerve cell activity in the brain. Now, this idea does need following up with studies in humans, but it may also help to explain why some people are susceptible to migraines and could even point towards new avenues for treatment in the future.

Listen to the whole edition of Breaking Science, originally broadcast on Radio Five Live, March 2009

Find out more

Can hypnotherapy really help with pain control?

Free Open University course materials from the Learning Space: How does aspirin control pain?

Study at The OU: Molecules, medicines and drugs: a chemical story


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

How we've been keeping Britain alive Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mathom | activity icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

How we've been keeping Britain alive

Follow the game-changing events in four different areas of healthcare provision in the United Kingdom.  

How FMRI works Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Steve Smith, FMRIB article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

How FMRI works

Functional magnetic resonance imaging is a technique for measuring brain activity, but how does it work?

Science promotion Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Science promotion

This free course will look at how public engagement in science and technology might be achieved through science promotion. Science promotion and public involvement in policy making can require both formal and informal objectives: some are explicit and some are implicit, some are articulated at the planning stage and some are unexpected. These objectives can entail participation, engagement, knowledge exchange and learning all of which require a degree of motivation by all parties.

Free course
12 hrs
The Parkinson's problem Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

The Parkinson's problem

Biochemist Birgit Liss is investigating the causes of Parkinson's Disease in the hope of finding a cure.

Counting the crisis: Other sources Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Individual organisations article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Counting the crisis: Other sources

To be certain about the extent of the risks we need to get our facts from more than one source. Charities, governmental statistical bodies and others are also measuring the levels of HIV infection.

The drug story: Viagra Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

The drug story: Viagra

The Open Minds programme explores 'the drug story: Viagra'

Herbal medicine Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Herbal medicine

Caldar Bendle gives an overview of herbal medicine, its history and its role in medicine today.

Ever Wondered About... Hamburgers? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Ever Wondered About... Hamburgers?

The science and history of hamburgers

Sleeping on it can solve your problems Creative commons image Icon j cliss under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Sleeping on it can solve your problems

Heading off to bed can sometimes be the perfect way to solve your problems, according to new research