BYU research reveals genetic cause of migraines

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A BYU professor took one step closer to discovering a cure for migraines when she recently discovered that migraines may be caused by a genetic mutation that makes people more prone to these debilitating headaches.

Chemistry professor Emily Bates
BYU chemistry professor Emily Bates. (Photo courtesy Mark A. Philbrick)

BYU chemistry professor Emily Bates suffered from migraines from her childhood all the way through graduate school. She did her best to stay healthy and active, but the migraines would still occur.

Although debilitating, Bates’ migraines have played a huge role in the development of her life.

“My first motivation to go into a scientific career was to understand migraines, and then I fell in love with science,” Bates said.

Although Bates hasn’t had a migraine since 2003, she doesn’t know why they stopped and is concerned they might return. Her migraines caused nausea, complete vision loss, excruciating pain and acute depression.

“During the time that I had the migraine I would just feel like life was not worth living,” she said. “It was just awful.”

Not many scientists research migraines, in part due to how unpredictable and complex they are. Bates started her current research on migraines in 2006 with collaborators from the University of Utah, University of Vermont, UCLA and UCSF, among others.

The study included two families with migraines that were dominantly inherited, meaning that roughly half of the children in these families suffered from migraines. To discover if this was genetics or simply a coincidence, the mutant form of the gene was put into mice that were then observed. The mice with the mutant gene were compared to normal mice, and research revealed that the gene was causing the mice to suffer from migraines.

Emily Bates with her painting.
Chemistry professor Emily Bates with her migraine painting (Photo courtesy Jonathan Hardy)

Migraines are notoriously difficult to treat because they are a moving target. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, “Diagnosing someone with migraine can be quite difficult. Since symptoms vary widely, migraine is often misdiagnosed and about half of all sufferers are never diagnosed.”

James Meiling, a 22-year-old exercise science student from Encinitas, Calif., routinely got migraines in the morning but didn’t know why they were occurring.

“They were pretty bad,” Meiling said. “They weren’t bad enough that I couldn’t function, but they were bad enough that I couldn’t workout in the morning or go running because it would just throb.”

Meiling’s family also has a history of headache problems. His uncle and one of his grandparents both suffer from migraines, and a lot of his family members get headaches from car sickness.

Although migraines and science have been a big part of her life, Bates still explores other things she enjoys. Art has even allowed her to better express the pain she felt during her migraines, and she describes herself as a musician, an artist, an athlete and a scientist.

“I don’t think I could give up any one of them,” Bates said.

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