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Migraines, Depression: A Genetic Link?

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Updated: 11/27/2012 9:58 pm

Jan. 13, 2010 -- Migraine headaches and depression may share a strong genetic link, a new study indicates.

Migraine sufferers are much more likely to suffer from depression than people who don’t have the debilitating headaches, according to researchers from Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

The study is published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study involved 2,652 people who took part in a research program called the Erasmus Rucphen Family study. All are genetically similar and descendants of 22 couples who lived in a community in the Netherlands from the 1850s to the 1900s.

Of the participants, 360 had migraines, including 151 who had migraine with aura - when headaches are preceded by sensations, such as flashing lights. An additional 209 had migraine without aura. The participants with migraines were compared to a group of 617 participants in the study who didn’t report having migraine headaches.

The researchers found that 25% of those with migraines also suffered from depression, compared to 13% of people with depression who didn’t have the headaches.

The researchers say that for both types of migraine, heritability (the percentage explained by genetic factors) was estimated at 56%.

For people with migraine with aura, the estimate was 96%.

The authors say that comparing the heritability estimates for depression between people with migraine and those without showed a shared genetic component in the two disorders, especially with migraine with aura.

“We found an increased risk of depression and depressive symptoms in migraine patients, in particular those with aura,” write the authors of the study, whose lead author was A.H. Stam, MD, of Leiden University Medical Centre.

 For migraines without aura, “a smaller decrease in heritability estimates was observed, suggesting that a small fraction of ... depression is explained by shared genetic factors,” the authors write.

The study, they say, may lead to better therapeutic strategies in people who suffer from both depression and migraine.

Andrew Ahn, MD, PhD, and Tetsuo Ashizawa, MD, of the University of Florida, advise that people with migraine or depression tell their doctors about any family history of either disease.

Gisela M. Terwindt, MD, PhD, of Leiden University Medical Center and one of the study authors, says in a news release that the findings suggest that “common genetic pathways may, at least partly, underlie both of these disorders, rather than that one is the consequence of the other.”

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