From Patient to Expert: Chemist Discovers Genetic Link in Migraines

An estimated 12 percent of Americans—up to 37 million people—experience at least one migraine a year.

Until 2003, Emily Bates was one of those people, experiencing repeated headaches, throbbing pain, and occasionally vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light.

“I had migraines really frequently and severely,” she said in a press release. “I would lose my vision, vomit uncontrollably—it would wipe out an entire day.” 

In high school, she swore she was going to do something about it. That led her to a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University and post-doctoral work with fellow geneticists at U.C. San Francisco’s medical school. 

Now as a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University, Bates is learning the secrets of migraines in an attempt to find treatments that work and recently published a study in Science Translational Medicine.

“There haven't been a lot of people working on migraine research, mostly because it's so complex and unpredictable,” she said. “This represents a lot of work to find and see the differences.”

Giving Mice Migraines

Bates and a team at UCSF focused on two families that appeared to have all inherited a form of migraines.

Studying their DNA, the migraine super team zeroed in on genetic mutations members of the family had in common, ones that that affect the production of a protein known as casein kinase delta. The same protein has been linked in previous research to the accumulation of tau proteins—which are linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s—in the brain.

To see if the shared mutations were more than just coincidence, designed an experiment to see if the same genetic trait would cause migraines in genetically engineered mice. The mice showed heightened sensitivity to touch, heat, sound, and light, similar to a person that experiences migraines.

The study concluded that their analysis of the mice showed the decrease in casein kinase delta can contribute to the cause of migraines.

“It's a molecular clue,” Bates said. “Now we can try to figure out what this specific protein affects in the body and how that is involved with migraines.”

Since one of the most frustrating things about migraines—besides the symptoms, of course—is how ineffective many migraine treatments are. By focusing in on a potential cause of migraines, researchers can fully understand it and find effective treatments.

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