Can your genes hurt your head?

By Melissa Coade

Thursday October 14, 2021

New research into the cause of migraines has uncovered that sufferers may have their genetics to blame.
New research into the cause of migraines has uncovered that sufferers may have their genetics to blame. (Matthieu/Adobe)

New research into the cause of migraine has uncovered that sufferers may have their genetics to blame — as well as diet or lifestyle factors. 

When Australians get walloped by migraine each year, it is estimated to cost the local economy $35.7 billion. Current treatments available do not work in up to 50% of patients. 

By examining metabolite levels in the blood, scientists from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have identified what they describe as ‘causal genetic links’ to migraine, which may be the key to one day finding a cure. 

Professor Dale Nyholt from QUT’s centre of genomics and personalised health led the research team whose work was published this week. He said that metabolites were substances made or used when the body breaks down food, drugs, or chemicals during metabolism.

“Variations in blood levels of metabolites can be due to diet, lifestyle, and genetics, but they are easy to measure and may be modified using diet planning and supplementation,” Nyholt said.

The scientists were able to pinpoint three genetic links in migraine sufferers, which included lower levels of DHA (an omega-3 known to reduce inflammation) and an uncharacterised metabolite known as X-11315, as well as higher levels of LPE (20:4).

By pinpointing the links, researchers hope that targeted compounds can be developed and tested that influence metabolite levels and see how that prevents migraine. They also expect that more targeted clinical trials and research to characterise the X–11315 metabolite can get underway.

Nyholt explained what this meant was that people with migraine had higher levels of shorter length fatty acids except for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — which was a long chain of omega-3.

“Fatty acids are made up of more complex lipids that help with cell signalling, cell membrane composition and gene expression, influencing disease risk.

“Lower levels of DHA are associated with inflammation, cardiovascular and brain disorders, such as depression, which are all linked to migraine risk,” he said. 

In the case of LPE(20:4), which migraine sufferers were found to have higher levels of, Nyholt said it had the ability to block the production of the anti-inflammatory molecule called anandamide.

“If LPE(20:4) is controlled to allow production of more anandamide to reduce inflammation, this could potentially prevent migraine,” he said.

Nyholt’s research was assisted by PhD candidates Hamzeh Tanha and Anita Sathyanarayanan. The team’s findings were published in the American Journal of Human Genetics on Tuesday.


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