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Virtual roller coaster rides may help unravel causes of migraine

Taking a ride on a virtual rollercoaster can lead to excessive motion sickness in those who experience migraine

KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

Virtual roller coasters set off altered brain cell activity related to dizziness and motion sickness in people who experience migraines, even if they are not currently having an episode – a finding that could lead to a better understanding of migraines and the development of new treatments.

Anyone can feel sick and dizzy when they take a ride on a roller coaster, but people who experience migraine headaches often feel sicker and dizzier on the thrill ride. And the more people feel motion sickness and a general sense of incapacitation from their migraines, the more their brain activity differs from normal during a roller coaster simulation, says Gabriela Carvalho at the University of Luebeck in Germany.

“Our findings show that the brain areas related to … processing of migraine pain overlap with brain systems that regulate motion sickness and dizziness,” she says. “People with migraines don’t just have headaches; they also often experience other conditions like motion sickness and dizziness which can really affect their quality of life. So this study really gives us a better idea about what’s going on [in their heads].”

Carvalho and her colleagues ran functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brains of 40 people – half of whom regularly experience migraine headaches – as they watched realistic, animated videos of roller coaster rides on a screen inside the MRI scanner continuously for 35 minutes.

The videos gave the point of view of a person sitting on the ride and included sounds of the car running on the tracks. Participants in both groups were 30 years old on average, and 80 per cent of both group members were female.

None of the participants experienced migraines during the virtual rides, but 65 per cent of those in the “migraine” group reported on a questionnaire that they felt dizzy during the simulation, while just 30 per cent of those in the control group did.

Those in the “migraine” group also rated their level of motion sickness as twice as high as those in the control group, and the information they provided on the questionnaire showed their dizziness and motion sickness symptoms during the rides lasted on average nearly three times longer than those in the control group.

The fMRI images supported these reports, says Carvalho. In those who experience regular migraines, the researchers saw heightened activity in areas of the brain responsible for vision, pain perception, sensory-motor processing, balance, and dizziness. They also detected more neural communication between these brain areas and other brain regions.

Meanwhile, these people had less activity in brain regions that deal with cognitive functions, including attention. And the more debilitating these study participant’s migraines usually are and the more motion sickness they usually feel, the more changes the scientists noted in brain activity during the virtual ride.

If the results can be confirmed in a larger number of people, they might offer new insights into why some people experience migraines. “People who do and do not have migraines process information about motion and gravity differently, and these findings reflect that,” says Carvalho. This might help efforts to develop new treatments, she adds.

Journal reference: Neurology, DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000012443

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