If you are living with migraine you know how debilitating it can be. You’ve probably spent more days—or even weeks—than you can count lying in bed with the curtains drawn, waiting for the pain and other symptoms like light sensitivity and dizziness to go away. That’s because migraine is no ordinary headache—it’s a neurological disease that can severely affect your quality of life. Approximately 12% of adults in the U.S. have migraine (almost 40 million people), and it’s the sixth most disabling disease worldwide, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Yet research to understand what causes migraine and what may treat it has been severely lacking, most likely due to stigma and limited awareness of the disease as well as insufficient funding. “If you look at diseases with similar levels of burden, they’re getting $200-plus million dollars from the National Institutes of Health whereas migraine only gets $20 to $25 million,” Amaal Starling, MD, a board-certified neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, tells SELF.
The good news is that funding for migraine research is increasing, slowly but surely, and new discoveries are being made every year. Here’s the state of migraine research right now, including which breakthroughs are coming down the pipeline.
What We Know—and Don’t Know—About the Causes of Migraine
Migraine is a complex disorder and its exact cause still isn’t fully understood. “The way I look at it is migraine is like an old puzzle where we have half the pieces and, therefore, we haven’t been able to put the puzzle together,” Stephen Silberstein, MD, board-certified neurologist and director of the Headache Center at Jefferson University Hospitals, tells SELF.
What experts do know is that migraine is a genetically inherited neurological disease that causes specific nerves in blood vessels to release substances that send pain signals to the brain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Unfortunately, experts still don’t know why your nerves do that—but whatever the cause, it’s hereditary.
“More than 200 genetic mutations have been found to be involved in migraine vulnerability, and every person has a different combination of those,” Dr. Starling says. “I dream of the day when I can draw blood or take a saliva sample and it tells me the exact physiology of a person’s migraine so I can tailor treatment to them individually.” Until then, people with migraine have dozens of treatments to try, with new drugs and medical devices getting approved by the FDA each year. Ahead, the most exciting new migraine treatments to look out for.
Promising New Pathways for Migraine Treatment
In recent years the focus of migraine research has been on inhibiting the release of substances that send pain signals to the brain. “Researchers have been trying to peel apart, layer by layer, which chemicals are released and how to attack them one by one,” Jessica Ailani, MD, a board-certified neurologist at Medstar’s Georgetown University Hospital, tells SELF.
According to Dr. Ailani, there are many neuropeptides (chemical messengers in nerve cells) involved in migraine, but most recently researchers have focused on two: calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating peptide (PACAP). Research on CGRP is more advanced: In the last five years, several drugs that block CGRP receptors (known as CGRP antagonists) have been approved by the FDA, some of which are taken orally when a migraine strikes and some of which are self-injected monthly or quarterly to prevent migraine attacks from happening in the first place.