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U Chicago researchers make breakthrough in chronic migraine relief


By David Schwartz
Published: February 22nd, 2012

Researchers at the University of Chicago are breaking new ground in the treatment of migraines. By mimicking the protective effects on the brain of physical and mental exercise and social activity, the UC research aims to drastically alleviate the painful, debilitating condition, which now affects around thirty million Americans.

Between health care costs and lost productivity, migraines rack up an economic toll of up to $30 billion, not to mention the immeasurable human toll of misery and suffering.

Aid for mild symptoms is currently available over the counter and from a family of prescription drugs known as triptans, but relief is more elusive for serious sufferers. Anticonvulsant meds, beta blockers, and calcium channel inhibitors used to treat serious  cases are often ineffective and, even when successful, put patients at risk of nausea, addiction and other side effects.

Now Richard P. Kraig, PhD, MD, and his small team of students at U Chicago have developed a promising new treatment that aims to stop the mechanisms that trigger migraines in the first place. The new method, for which Kraig has filed a provisional patent application, takes its cue from the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis of brain health: that physical and mental exercise and social activity (or “environmental enrichment”) promote neurological resilience.

Migraines are commonly preceded by a spike in brain activity, much like with seizures (hence the use of anticonvulsants for migraines). Thus a syndrome known as “spreading depression” begins, a temporary loss of brain function thought by most professionals to be the immediate trigger of an episode. “It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond,” says Kraig. “The ripples just propagate out from where you dropped the stone, but with those ripples comes a loss of brain activity.” These “ripples” stimulate chemicals that radiate outward from the brain to the sensitive nerve endings swathing the meninges, which is the membrane-like matter encasing the brain. It is this radiation that is interpreted as intense pain by the sufferer. By targeting this critical and self-perpetuating mechanism, Kraig and his team hope to bring the migraine’s vicious cycle to an end.

Their strategy involves three newly discovered cytokines, or regulatory molecules that convey signals between cells, which act individually to raise the limit of excess brain excitability needed to trigger spreading depression, thereby decreasing the likelihood of an attack. In the process the cytokines are simulating the effect of environmental enrichment by temporarily elevating brain activity, which the research team believes will build resilience to spreading depression.

“When you do enrichment,” says Kraig, “you strengthen the brain through pattern-specific, memory-specific increased excitability. That’s what these agents did in our studies — mimic what enrichment does naturally.” The new treatment has gotten the attention of UChicagoTech, the university’s intellectual property office, which is helping Kraig through the application process and courting interest from potential industry partners.

“It was compelling to us that Dr. Kraig’s work was well-positioned to be translational, though it is still at a relatively early stage,” says UChicagoTech project manager Adam Conway, PhD, JD.

Source: UChicagoTech

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