Probing the Genetics of Migraines:

UCSF Neurology Professors Try to Unlock the Atomic Code of Killer Headaches

Sept. 13, 2006

Two professors in UCSF’s Department of Neurology are conducting a long-term study of migraines, hoping to uncover what they believe to be a common set of genetic factors responsible for the condition.

Louis Ptáček and Ying-Hui Fu have collected DNA samples from migraine sufferers that should provide the researchers with clues in identifying the genetic material that predisposes some people for lifelong bouts of chronic and disabling headaches.

“Your propensity to have migraine depends in part on genes you inherited from your parents," Ptacek asserts with rather unwavering conviction, considering the numerous other theories circulating about what causes condition. He and his colleagues place the illness in the category of episodic disorders, like epilepsy.

This new spin on an age-old problem may come as a surprise to many. Though not uncommon to have one or two family members per generation experience regular migraines, one might assume that statistically this could coincide with the proportion of sufferers to non-sufferers in the general population.

Ptacek claims the incidence in the families of migraine sufferers is statistically higher, however. One component of his research involves compiling a database to track just exactly how the inheritance factor plays out.

On the other hand, even if the number were higher, most family therapists have traditionally argued that migraines contain an important emotional element, typically an inadequate mechanism for coping with anger and stress. Rather than the genes being handed down, the argument goes, it’s the wrong behavior that’s being passed on by parents to their children.

But Dr. Ptacek is having none of that.

"Everything about us and other living organisms is the genes that we’re borne with or that we start with and how we interact with the environment around us." As evidence, he cites studies that demonstrate a much higher correlation of migraine headaches in identical twins than fraternal twins. "There's clear data from epidemiology that some of it is genetic.”

By finding which genes are responsible for chronic and severe headaches, researchers hope to isolate the proteins involved, which will in turn enable scientists to understand what’s happening on a cellular level. Once this milestone is achieved, more suitable medications can be developed to prevent episodes from occurring.

Unfortunately, Ptacek continues, “it's also not so simple as one gene and one mutation, and if you get the mutation, you have migraine.” More likely, several genes are involved. According to some as yet unpublished research, a connection has been discovered between people who wake up and go to bed early, and migraine with aura. This finding has led Ptacek and Professor Fu to create a “mouse model”, as Ptacek calls it, which may one day provide important data to help crack the genetic code.

In addition to the gene studies, UCSF is also home to The Center for Migraine Research and Clinical Care, one of the largest interdisciplinary programs in the United States dedicated to finding the causes and cures of migraine. The clinic currently treats over a thousand patients each year and can be reached by calling 415-353-2273.

Copyright 2006 The City Edition