Brain & Mind

Musing over migraine

If I want a spike in readership, using a title “Migraine cure” would surely reap huge dividends, especially in summer!

Migraine remains one of the most painful malaises that human brain is afflicted with. As its pathology is still not understood, I am tempted to speculate over it from a new angle.

When under threat, animals show what is popularly known as a flight-or-fight response. It is one of the earliest auto-run protocols developed by brain to deal with threats.

This misnamed auto-response actually comprises of not two but three options that the brain chooses from, i.e. fighting the threat, running away from the threat and third, equally important, freezing/fainting in a completely still position till the threat passes.

In executing fight or fight, body is put in a state of high alert, but freezing requires a complete opposite body chemistry for its implementation. As really efficient freeze would be being as good as dead, this response plays out in the brain by making it sink into stupor.

Popularly known as “playing possum” (as this defence mechanism is commonly observed in a marsupial mammal, opossum), this defensive gambit is found in many other creatures suggesting that it is a valid and useful survival mechanism.

Interestingly, one of the most prominent features of migraine is a very intense desire of withdrawal from all external stimuli. A person with migraine finds him/herself preferring to recede into an inactive state as far as possible. He/she is internally prompted to lay motionless, avoid bright light and be in a state of stupor. The pathology of migraine is powerful enough to lead a person into a state of involuntary unresponsiveness. It is like playing possum the human way.

As threat plays key role in playing possum, it is likely that migraine too is linked with threat perception. In human beings, with neocortex still in process of coming to terms with old brain, threat perception has now become a complicated issue. While old brain has limited ability to fear directly perceivable real stimulus like tiger or height, neocortex can use its ability to imagine and scare the old brain by conjuring up threats out of thin air.

Already armed with a self-scaring neocortex, we have made the situation worse by changing our lifestyle. Human brain is that of an ape who lived a social life inside the protective shell of a family. Surrounded by closely bonded group and living within a territory made safe by the group, human brain is prone to be in a state of high alert when isolated and living in alien environment.

As modern urban lifestyle is forcing people to live outside traditional protective shells like family or familiar environment, many are internally in a heightened state of alert without being aware of it. It is causing a lot of stress that they can’t perceive directly but it flows strongly at some level inside their brains.

It is possible that this internal underlying sense of threat has made migraine a curse of modernity. With people constantly on an edge, their brains are turning a useful brain feature into a problem. Migraine could be akin to an allergic attack or an auto-immune phenomenon that is getting triggered by stress of having adopted a lifestyle that human brain is not comfortable with.

If migraine is powered by the ancient brain circuit of fight-flight-faint, it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate it completely. The only way to mitigate its attacks would be by finding the underlying stress triggers and preventing them from firing. Having a loving family, a good social circle and being physically fit could be a likely way to reduce threat perception; and, in turn, migraine attacks.

DNA: 5/6/16

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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