Part of the show Sex Chromosomes, Genetics and Food Webs
Researchers in America at the Ohio State University Medical Centre, led by neurologist Yousef Mohammad, have found that a quick zap to the head with a magnet can stave off a migraine attack. Characteristically migraines usually begin with visual disturbances, known as an aura, during which sufferers complain of seeing flashing lights, wavy patterns or lose parts of their vision. This is followed by light sensitivity, nausea and vomiting and a throbbing headache which can last for several hours. Researchers think that the aura is produced by a slowly spreading region of excessive nerve activity which subsequently triggers pain sensations by causing blood vessels in the brain to open up. It is well known that magnets can be used to alter the electrical activity of the brain; this process is called TMS or trans-cranial magnetic stimulation and is delivered using a hand-held hair-dryer sized device. To find out whether it could reset a developing migraine the team recruited 43 sufferers and asked them to present to the emergency room as soon as they began to experience any aura symptoms. As soon as they arrived they received two blasts of TMS to the back of the head, or a placebo treatment. Two hours later about 70% of the TMS-treated patients reported that they had little or no headache, compared with 48% of those who received a pretend (placebo) treatment. The findings agree with another small trial conducted recently, this time in Canada, by Adrian Upton, a neurologist at McMaster University in Ontario, although, rather like the brain itself, why the technique works is still something of a "grey area".