Why is it difficult to discover the genes for migraine?


Migraine has many different subtypes and also changes through a person’s life, making diagnosis and identifying genetic causes difficult.


“Migraine is a very common disorder. It's the most common neurological disorder. Probably about, as I mentioned, about 12% of the Australian population, but whatever population you look at around the world is affected by migraine. So it occurs in all sorts of ethnicities and different countries. It affects both males and females, and you'll find in actual fact, most populations it's about three times more females than males that are affected. So this makes it a little bit different as well, compared to other diseases.
“Also, it affects different ages. You can have small children that are affected for the first time and you can have people at menopause for the very first time that are affected, as well. So that makes it a bit tricky to look at because you may be looking at someone who, as an example, is 30, doesn't have migraine and you think that they're a control but in actual fact, they develop it later in life. So it is a fairly complex disorder to study and sometimes the use of families can actually help with that. And so that's probably why we put a focus, at least in our research, in doing that.
“The other thing I want to point out, too, is that migraine has a lot of subtypes. If you look at migraine, more common types, there are two sorts: migraine with and without aura. The migraine without aura is probably the most common. It's about 70%, and 30% migraine with aura. They have similar symptoms. They have the headache and the pain associated with migraine that can go up to several days, nausea, vomiting, photophobia, phonophobia. But those who suffer from migraine with aura also have severe neurological symptoms, such as eye disturbances, visual disturbances, they can't talk properly sometimes. They can even have some paralysis through part of their body.
“So, this is a slightly more severe type of migraine and the reason I've mentioned this one is that sometimes it's easier to identify genes involved in a disorder when you have these more severe subtypes. So we've actually, one of the other areas we've been focusing on in the last few years is the diagnosis of migraine. Now the common types of migraine are a bit harder to diagnose because we don't know all the genes yet and it appears that there are a lot of genes. But there are some subtypes of migraine where we have single genes that play a really significant role.”


Although migraine is the most common neurological disorder in the world, it affects people differently throughout life, and there are many different subtypes. Because of this, it is easier to study people with more severe symptoms and also families when looking for genetic causes.

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Professor Lyn Griffiths, PhD, BSc Hons

Director, Centre for Genomics & Personalised Health
Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Professor Lyn Griffiths is the executive director of the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, the largest interdisciplinary research institute at Queensland University of Technology. An active and respected molecular geneticist with more than 28 years of experience studying human complex gene disorders, with specific expertise in human gene mapping and gene expression analysis in migraine, cardiovascular disease, and several types of cancer. Professor Griffiths leads the Genomics Research Centre, in which the main focus of research is the identification of genes involved in common human disorders and the translation of this research into new diagnostics and therapeutics.

Professor Griffiths’ own genetics research has appeared in more than 350 peer-reviewed international journals and led to diagnostic breakthroughs for several neurogenetic disorders, including familial migraine, ataxia, epilepsy, and hereditary stroke. A fellow of the Queensland Academy of Arts and Science, Professor Griffiths has also established several significant international collaborations with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, Oxford University, University of Vienna, the Italian National Research Council, the MS ANZgene Consortium, and the International Migraine Genetics Consortium.