Could studying brain freeze lead to a cure for migraines?

The Week's Editorial Staff
The WeekApril 25, 2012

Scientists have finally revealed the cause of the pain you feel after consuming something cold quickly, and the findings could help with another, more debilitating, pain

As anyone who's ever wolfed down heaping spoonfuls of ice cream in the summertime can attest, the sudden jolt of "brain freeze" can be momentarily crippling. Until recently, experts understood very little about the brief, fleeting pain — until now. Here, a look at the new study, and why understanding brain freeze might help researchers develop treatments for more serious ailments like migraines:

What does cause "brain freeze"?
In the findings, presented at this year's Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, researchers discovered that consuming something cold — eating ice cream or drinking ice-cold water — causes "an abrupt increase in blood flow to a major artery in the brain," which is subsequently followed "by the familiar headache-like pain," says Jennifer Warner at Web MD. When the artery constricts again after the sudden rush of blood, the pain stops. 

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Which major artery is affected?
It's the brain's anterior cerebral artery, which is located in the middle of the face behind the eyes, and has an important job. "The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time," said lead researcher Jorge Serradaor of Harvard Medical School in a statement. "It's fairly sensitive to temperature, so [expanding arteries] might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm." 

How did researchers figure this out?
Using diagnostic imaging to monitor blood flow in the subjects' heads, researchers had 13 healthy participants sip ice water (sadly, not ice cream) through a straw pressed against the upper palate. Subjects were told to raise their hands when the headache hit, and then raised them again when the pain went away. 

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Why is understanding ice cream headaches important?
Changes in blood flow to the brain may be important to understanding more serious ailments, says Serrador, namely little-understood migraines, which are widely thought to be associated with a brain condition, but may be linked to constricting blood vessels. "Drugs that prevent the sudden arterial dilation could potentially be an effective remedy for these debilitating migraines," says Kim Carollo at ABC News. But right now, "it's too big a leap to tie the findings to other types of headaches." As Dr. Joel Saper, director of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, tells ABC News, "Not all headaches are the same."

Sources: ABC News, LiveScience, TIME, WebMD

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