The Mystery Behind Brain Freeze

Brain blood flow linked to brain freeze discovery may provide migraine insight

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Ever been eating ice cream and found yourself suffering from the instant but brief headache most know as brain freeze? Scientists may have figured out the mystery behind it.

Brain freeze appears to be tied to changes in brain blood flow, a finding that could be important for developing new treatments to treat migraines and other types of headaches.

"Try a nap to ease migraine pain."

Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System used brain freeze as a proxy for other types of headaches, including those caused by trauma or combat blasts in soldiers, to study their sudden onset. Brain freeze was suspected of sharing a common mechanism with other types of headaches since migraine sufferers are more likely to experience brain freeze.

During the study researchers asked 13 healthy adults to drink ice water with the straw pressed against the roof of their mouth, which is suspected to help bring on brain freeze.

They also drank water at room temperature. The participants raised their hands when the felt brain freeze, than again when it went away.

Scientists monitored the patients' brains through transcranial Doppler, an ultrasound that measures blood flow through the brain's blood vessels.

Investigators discovered that the brain's anterior cerebral artery dilated rapidly, flooding the brain with blood during the pain of brain freeze. A short time later the same vessel constricted, and the pain began to dissipate.

It is suspected that sudden headaches also are triggered in a similar manner. Serrador speculates that this quick constriction may be a type of defense mechanism for the brain. Such studies would be difficult with migraine sufferers since it could take days or weeks of waiting in a lab before they experienced a migraine.

“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time,” Serrador said. “It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.”

However, since the skull is closed the added blood may increase pressure and cause pain. The constriction is thought to reduce the pressure before it is elevated to dangerous levels.

Similar blood flow changes may also cause migraines, and various kinds of headaches, including those that are post-traumatic. If research confirms this suspicion , investigators may be able to use the findings to create drugs that block sudden vasodilation or target areas involved in that process, potentially changing the course of headaches.

The study will be presented at an Experimental Biology 2012 meeting this week in San Diego, Calif.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 23, 2012
Last Updated:
April 23, 2012