Are Migraines Hereditary?
What the research says about how family history plays a role in your migraines.
- Although the causes of migraine are not totally understood, both your environment and your genetics play a role.
- Researchers have begun to identify specific genes that may affect the development of migraines.
- DNA differences do not actually cause migraines — rather, they make your body function differently, heightening the likelihood that migraine triggers will affect you.
Although the causes of migraine are not totally understood, both your environment and your genetics play a role.2 In fact, if one or both of your parents has migraines, you are also more likely to experience these headaches: A child with one parent who suffers from migraines has about a 50 percent risk.3 If both parents have migraines, the child’s risk goes up to 75 percent.4
Early Research on Genetics and Hereditary Migraines
Migraines may occur more often in certain families, but because migraine symptoms and migraine triggers vary greatly between individuals, tracking the specific genetics of this condition is difficult.
Early research and epidemiology studies have suggested that aura migraines and migraines without aura each have their own hereditary characteristics.3 For example, an early population-based study found that first-degree relatives of migraine without aura sufferers had a 1.9 times greater risk of developing the condition themselves and a 1.4 greater risk of aura migraine. However, first-degree relatives of aura migraine sufferers had nearly four times the risk of experiencing aura migraines themselves. Conversely, first-degree relatives of those who had no migraines had no increased risk of migraine either with or without aura.5
New Gene Sequencing Offers Clues
More recently, a new gene-sequencing technology called Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) has helped researchers begin to identify specific genes that may affect the development of migraines. This technique compares DNA from individuals with migraine to similar individuals without migraine. When a particular DNA sequence variation is found more often in the DNA of those with migraine, that region is thought to be associated with the condition.
One recent GWAS analysis looked at the DNA of more than 23,000 migraine sufferers and compared it with DNA from more than 95,000 similar individuals without migraine. This analysis found 12 specific areas of the DNA that appear to be associated with migraine, two of which were specifically associated only with migraine without aura. Why does this matter? Early research indicated that aura migraines were more commonly hereditary — but this study suggests that migraine without aura can also have a strong family history.6
How Inherited Factors Impact Migraine
No single genetic variant can explain why migraines are more common in certain families. They are more likely caused by an interaction between genetic differences and environmental triggers.7
For example, specific mutations identified in GWAS analyses may lead to accumulation of glutamate, a key neurotransmitter in the brain that communicates messages throughout the body. This finding supports current theories that extra neurotransmission (in other words, too many messages from the brain), may contribute to the start of a migraine attack.8
Familial Hemiplegic Migraine
The most studied type of migraine associated with mutations in specific genes is a rare subtype of aura migraine called familial hemiplegic migraine (or FHM).9 Those with FHM suffer severe migraine attacks, sometimes with an aura that includes numbness or weakness on one side of the body (hemiparesis). Mutations in a few genes have been specifically linked to families with FHM, each of which can cause disruption of normal release and uptake of neurotransmitters in the brain.10
What This Means For You
Researchers continue to explore the link between inherited genes and how these influence the processes in our brains. As ongoing research identifies these genes and then explores how these impact migraine triggers, new ways to treat migraines may be revealed.
The bottom line? Share anything you can about your family history for migraines when you talk to your physician – it could help him or her get a full picture of your medical history.
1. Migraine Research Foundation. "Raising Money for Migraine Research." 2019. https://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/
2. Lee JY, Kim M. Current issues in migraine genetics. J Clin Neurol. 2005;1:8-12.
3. Schurks M. Genetics of migraine in the age of genome-wide studies. J Headache Pain. 2012;13:1-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3253157/
4. National Headache Foundation. "Facts About Migraine." August 12, 2005. https://headaches.org/2005/08/12/facts-about-migraine/
5. Russell MB, Olesen J. Increased familial risk and evidence of genetic factor in migraine. BMJ. 1995; 311:541-544. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2550605/pdf/bmj00607-0025.pdf
6. Anttila V, Winsvold BS, Kurth GP, et al. Genome-wide meta-analysis identifies new susceptibility loci for migraine. Nat Genet. 2013;45(8):912-917.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4041123/
7. Gasparini CF, Sutherland HG, Griffiths LR. Studies on the pathophysiology and genetic basis of migraine. Curr Genomics. 2013;14(5):300-315.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
8. Anttila V, Wessman M, Kallela M, Palotie A. Towards an understanding of genetic predisposition to migraine. Genome Medicine. 2011;3:17-20.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3092102/
9. Van de Ven RC, Kaja S, Plomp JJ, et al. Genetic models of migraine. Arch Neruol. 2007;64:643-646.http://archneur.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=793783
10. Pietrobon D. Familial hemiplegic migraine. Neurotherapeutics. 2007;4:274-284. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1016%2Fj.nurt.2007.01.008