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October 21, 2016

What are Migraines, and What Do They Feel Like?

This is the latest post in my #BrainBits series, where I'll answer your burning neuroscience questions in 60 seconds or less. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, you can e-mail me, tweet me, or submit your questions anonymously here.
Sasha Wolff (Wikimedia Commons)

I am lucky to have never experienced a migraine before. *knocks on wood*

But 15% of the world's population suffers from migraines, and those folks will easily rattle off all of the painful symptoms: pulsating pain — sometimes localized to one side of the head — often accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound, or smell. Some also experience nausea. About 1/3 of migraine sufferers perceive auras before the onset of pain, or brief periods of strange visuals, scents, or confusing thoughts.

In more lay terms, Huffington Post columnist Lisa Belkin once described a migraine as feeling "like you are trying to give birth through your forehead."

But what exactly causes migraines, and how are they different from headaches?

It's important to know that although the brain perceives pain from all parts of the body, the brain itself does not feel pain. The brain lacks nociceptors, or specialized sensory nerve fibers that transmit pain signals, which are present in our skin, muscles, and joints.

Headaches, then, are not pain in the brain, but rather activation of nociceptors located in the layers between the brain and the skull: the pia mater and dura mater (collectively, the meninges):

The pia mater (yellow) and dura mater (gray), collectively called the meninges, cushion and 
protect the brain from the skull. OpenStax (Wikimedia Commons)

As you can see from the image above, these layers are highly vascularized, or contain many blood vessels. Common headaches are triggered by fatigue, stress, head injury, or medications which, one way or another, lead to dilation of blood vessels, blood vessel spasms, or inflammation of the meninges.

While the source of pain in migraines is similar to that of headaches, migraines are actually thought to originate in the brain. Many specialists believe auras are caused by sudden increased, then decreased, neural activity in the cortex (outer layer) of the brain.

The activation of these nerves releases a number of proteins, such as serotonin, which can cause inflammation to the meninges as well as dilate blood vessels. A family of migraine medications called triptans work by constricting blood vessels and blocking serotonin. Many people report that "triggers," such as certain foods or changes in the weather, will reliably cause the onset of their migraines, though it is not entirely clear why this happens.

Do you suffer from migraines? Are there specific things that "trigger"  your migraines? What treatments work for you (or don't work)? Let me know in the comments.

October 13, 2016

[Bringing it Back] #BrainBits: 60-Second Neuroscience - Submit Your Questions!

Last year, I experimented with fun, short posts through a segment called #BrainBits, where I'd answer your burning "why?" questions in a post that would take 60 seconds or less to read.

Hey Paul Studios (Flickr)
You can read all #BrainBits posts here, which include, among others:

  • Why does coffee make me poop?
  • What is déjà vu ?
  • Why do I get hangry?
  • What are hiccups?

I'm bringing it back!

You can e-mail me your questions, tweet me (@GainesOnBrains), comment below, or submit your questions anonymously here

And make sure you're subscribed to Gaines, on Brains (see sidebar on the right) to get my regular blogs, including the #BrainBits posts, sent to your inbox.

Stay neuroscience-y!

October 6, 2016

Scientists Should Advocate for their Own Research

Why (and how) scientists should advocate for their research with journalists and policymakers


iStock/BPLANET
Long gone are the days of the lone investigator who discovered a new scientific truth, published the finding in a journal, and continued doing bench research. Nowadays, scientists have to wear any number of different hats: experimenter, data analyst, teacher, mentor, negotiator, financial planner, writer, boss, philosopher, and speaker.

We have to be team players, but also self-motivated. We have to pay meticulous attention to detail while also under- standing how our research fits into the bigger picture. A good scientist performs well in many of these roles, but one person can’t be good at everything.

I am a postdoctoral researcher whose favorite hat is “writer.” It’s exciting to craft my message, put years’ worth of work down on paper, and add my own results to the literature of a decades-old research field. Scientific publications give us the potential to change the status quo in how other researchers approach their own work—and that’s a big deal.

But when we pour all our energy into communicating only with other scientists, we miss the mark on targeting two other crucial audiences who can help us make an even bigger impact: journalists and policymakers.

To read the rest of this op-ed at The Scientist, click here.