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'Ice Cream Headaches' Might Offer Clues to Migraines

SUNDAY, April 22 (HealthDay News) -- That "brain freeze" headache you experience when eating ice cream or other cold foods may be caused by a sudden change in brain blood flow, researchers report.

What's more, the new research might point to targets to treat other, more troubling forms of headache such as migraine, the U.S. team said.

In the study, the scientists monitored brain blood flow in 13 healthy adults as they sipped ice water through a straw pressed against the upper palate so as to trigger "brain freeze."

The results suggest that these transient headaches are triggered by a sudden increase in blood flow in the brain's anterior cerebral artery. Brain freeze disappears again when this artery constricts, the study found.

The findings, to be presented Sunday at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Francisco, may help lead to new treatments for other types of headaches, the researchers said. Experimental Biology brings together researchers from six scientific societies.

The rapid dilation and then quick constriction of the anterior cerebral artery may be a type of self-defense for the brain, explained study leader Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System.

"The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It's fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation [expansion of blood vessels] might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm," Serrador noted in an American Physiological Society news release.

He explained that the skull is a closed structure and the sudden rush of blood could therefore boost pressure and cause pain. The subsequent constriction of the artery may also be a way to reduce pressure in the brain before it reaches dangerous levels.

Brain blood flow changes similar to those seen in brain freeze could be associated with migraines and other types of headaches, Serrador said. If further research confirms that this is the case, then finding ways to control brain blood flow could offer new treatments for headaches, he said.

Data and conclusions presented at scientific meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about headaches.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Physiological Society, news release, April 22, 2012

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