So that’s why ice cream causes brain freeze

By Sue Thoms –

Kennedy Kubiak grabs her forehead as a brain freeze sets in while she competes in an ice cream eating contest in Springport in June.

Gulp a tall glass of cold water or down a huge spoonful of ice cream, and there’s a good chance you’ll get brain freeze – that quick, stabbing pain between the temples.

The cause of the very common and unscientific-sounding phenomenon has long baffled scientists. Now, a researcher at Harvard Medical Schoolsays changes in blood flow in the brain could be to blame.

And because migraine sufferers are more susceptible to brain freeze, the findings of his study could lead to new treatments for migraines and other headaches.

The study led by Jorge Serrador involved 13 healthy adults who sipped ice water through a straw pressed against their upper palate. The volunteers raised a hand when they felt brain freeze and raised it again when the pain disappeared.

Monitoring by transcranial Doppler showed that when the brain freeze hit, the anterior cerebral artery dilated rapidly and flooded the brain with blood. The vessel soon constricted – and that’s when the participants’ pain receded.

The dilation and constriction of the blood vessel might be a self-defense mechanism of the brain, Serrador said in a statement released by the American Physiological Society.

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

However, the sudden influx of blood could raise pressure and cause pain inside the skull. The constriction of the blood vessel might occur to reduce pressure before it reaches dangerous levels, he said.

Serrador said similar changes in blood flow might be involved in migraines, posttraumatic stress headaches and other headaches. Drugs that target blood vessel dilation might help treat these conditions.

The study was conducted by researchers at Harvard, Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System, and the National University of Ireland Galway. It was presented Sunday at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego.

Some headache experts questioned the usefulness of the findings, according to a story by ABC News:

“We have known for decades that migraine is caused by nerve dysfunction. There may be vascular changes, but they are only secondary,” said Dr. Teshamae Monteith, director of the headache program at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “Patients experience warning symptoms such as food cravings, frequent yawning, fatigue, and neck stiffness a day before the pain, suggesting that migraine is a state of brain dysfunction as opposed to one of vascular dysfunction.”

Dr. Joel Saper, director of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, added that the study doesn’t seem to provide any evidence that the altered blood flow actually caused the pain.

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