Roughly 30 million Americans suffer from migraines, and as you might expect, there’s a large pharmaceutical market to prevent or stop these debilitating headaches. Drugs such as Imitrex and Verapamil employ different pharmacological modes of action, reducing migraines by adjusting neurotransmitter levels, blocking ion channels, or simulating the body’s natural painkillers. There’s also a less pharmaceutical migraine treatment strategy, recommended by many headache specialists, that follows the old adage: “Active Body, Active Mind.” One recent study even found that 40 minutes of exercise three times a week can be as effective at preventing migraines as popular anti-migraine medications.
Still, prescribing exercise or environmental enrichment (keeping the mind busy through activities such as reading, crossword puzzles, exercise, or socialization) can strike some doctors and patients as frustratingly vague. Understanding the biological mechanism that makes these activities protective against migraines could help convince doctors and patients of their utility, while also giving researchers the opportunity to translate the factors associated with environmental enrichment into highly effective treatments. In the laboratory of Richard Kraig, William D. Mabie Professor in the Neurosciences at University of Chicago Medicine, that very effort is underway.
“We are interested in environmental enrichment as a way to stop cognitive decline from aging, injury after stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and cell death after seizures. With our new work, we apply this search for how the brain protects itself against disease to include migraines,” Kraig said. ”The ‘why’ of it has sometimes been left in the realm of holistic medicine, with little scientific support. So establishing the hard science makes it more credible to the psychologists, physiologists, physiatrists, because here’s the chemistry.”