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“Brain Freeze” Might Help Solve Migraine Mysteries

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Eager eaters know that gulping a Slurpee or inhaling a sundae can cause that brief seizing sensation known in the not-so-technical literature as “brain freeze” or “ice cream headache.”

Just what causes this common cautionary condition has remained mysterious to sufferers and scientists alike (not that the two categories need remain mutually exclusive).

A new study, presented April 22 at the Experimental Biology 2012 annual meeting in San Diego, proposes a probable answer. And it’s one that could also suggest new treatments for more serious conditions, such as migraines and traumatic brain injuries.

The findings were not easy to obtain and required 17 courageous volunteers to submit themselves to brain freeze. These healthy, self-sacrificing adults took sips of extra-cold water through a straw, which they aimed at the roof of their mouths. While their lips were sipping away, subjects’ brains were monitored via transcranial Doppler, which can sense changes in arterial blood flow. As soon as volunteers achieved and then emerged from a freeze, they alerted the researchers.

Researchers then were able to pinpoint changes in brain activity at those precise moments, comparing those signals with measurements taken under control conditions when subject sipped on room temperature water.

The team, led by Melissa Mary Blatt, of the Department of Veterans Affairs New Hersey Health Care System, found that just before brain freeze, the anterior cerebral artery opened wider and pumped extra blood to the brain. This artery is one of two in charge of bringing blood to the frontal lobes, which is also where subjects reported the greatest freeze pain. This response might be the body’s effort to keep the brain from getting too cold by supplying it with a blast of warm blood.

Tellingly, as the vessel contracted back to its normal diameter, the pain went away.

The researchers suggested that the pain might stem from the excess pressure generated by this quick burst of blood into the closed skull cavity.

A similar blood-induced pressure might also be partly responsible for migraines, traumatic brain injury headaches and others, the researchers noted. If that turns out to be the case, new treatments that prevented this quick dilation of the blood vessels could be key in turning down pain for many headache sufferers.

For the rest of us, perhaps we should try to sip, slurp and lick a bit more slowly.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. skepchris 3:04 am 04/23/2012

    My weekly migraines have greatly diminished my fear of death. I certainly hope we can find a causal mechanism, and by extension, a cure. It pains me to so casually(want to) religate my life to oblivion just to escape the cascading, recurrent nightmare that is a migraine.

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  2. 2. doctordawg 6:09 am 04/23/2012

    When I get a smoothie-induced brain freeze headache, then while in mid-suffer I drink a warm beverage, the pain almost instantly disappears. Can blood vessels expand and contract that quickly from external stimuli?

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  3. 3. rossking 9:22 am 04/23/2012

    Re: doctordawg. Absolutely, they can! Thermosensitive ion channels located on and around the blood vessel can be activated by different temperature ranges to either directly influence blood vessel diameter or indirectly, by the release of intermediate molecules that also may have a constrictor/dilator effect.

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  4. 4. barryspencer 1:57 pm 04/23/2012

    Vascular dilation DEcreases blood pressure, so we know brain freeze pain cannot be caused by “excess pressure” due to vascular dilation.

    Brain freeze pain is caused by adenosine, the neurochemical that dilates blood vessels.

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  5. 5. trafficproducts 11:27 pm 04/23/2012

    Not fussy, good food, reasonable life habits is the best way

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  6. 6. Mannysan 11:52 am 04/25/2012

    I suffered from migraine headaches for a long time (actually since childhood), and nothing seemed to appease it until someone advised me to change my diet. Headaches are rare nowadays and it’s quite a relief!

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