Over 12% of the world's population suffer from migraines, with women making up two-thirds of sufferers. The attacks are not only highly unpleasant for sufferers, but are also costly for employers and health services. Annual costs are estimated at €10 billion for the EU alone.
Although the problem is widespread, the available treatments are unsuccessful in more than half of patients. The migraine community is therefore desperate for possible treatments, and has demonstrated this by participating in EUROHEAD's research.
Coordinators of the recently-concluded EU-funded project EUROHEAD spoke to CORDIS News about the discoveries made in the project and the impact that it has had on the migraine research community worldwide.
A cure for migraines is still some way off, but the EUROHEAD team does now have a much better understanding of how genes are involved in the triggering of a migraine, and how the trigger threshold can be reduced.
There is compelling evidence that cortical spreading depression (CSD) is responsible for the 'aura', the visual disturbances that often accompany migraines. The EUROHEAD team now believes that it could also be responsible for the onset of migraines themselves.
Several thousand migraine patients participated in the research, including twins and families in which migraines are common. Crucial to the success of the project was the involvement of people who suffer from a monogenic subtype of migraine, in which one sole gene is responsible for the condition. Five or six years ago there was just one pool of patients with the monogenic migraine subtype. The EUROHEAD team has now identified far more families in which the condition runs, and has also identified new syndromes.
Much of the research was done using cellular models, but animal models and human volunteers were also involved. Cellular models enabled the team to see what effects the genes had on cells at microscopic level. When investigating how the cells interact, the animal models were needed. 'We could never have done this if we had stuck to single cells. The two models were complimentary,' explains Dr Arn van den Maagdenberg of Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
Brave volunteers in Denmark had an attack triggered by a team at Glostrup University Hospital using nitric oxide. The method developed in Glostrup is successful in triggering migraines in 60% to 70% of sufferers. Asked about these volunteers' readiness to have a migraine triggered in the name of science, Principal Investigator Michel Ferrari was very positive: 'The migraine population as a whole is very happy with initiatives like this. They feel they are being taken seriously. It has been established that this is a real disease,' he says.
While EUROHEAD has shown migraine-sufferers that they are being taken seriously, it has also indicated to the world that Europe should be taken seriously as a centre of excellence for migraine research. 'Europe is already the centre of excellence for migraine research. It is striking that, in other medical areas, the US is leading, but not in this area,' says Dr Ferrari. Moreover, most of the important research groups in this field were members of the EUROHEAD consortium.
The team has been contacted by researchers in every continent interested in collaborating on future research. Many have even sent genetic material from new families of migraine-sufferers. The EUROHEAD team is following up on the invitations that it has received, and many joint publications are in the pipeline.
EUROHEAD is currently experiencing what Dr van den Maagdenberg refers to as the 'magnet effect'. 'Everybody's looking at EUROHEAD as the experts on migraines,' he said.
Dr van den Maagdenberg welcomes the critical mass, the integration of research teams and the momentum created by EUROHEAD. When the right call is published under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the team will apply for further funding with the ultimate aim of finding a cure for the migraine.
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