Science - December 3, 2009

Spinoza Winners to Tackle Migraine

Marten Scheffer is going to research tipping points for migraine. He will work together with colleagues at Twente and Leiden universities.

Michel Ferrari (left), Marten Scheffer (centre) and Albert van den Berg at the NWO Spinoza Prize Awards ceremony on 25th November.
The three winners of the NWO Spinoza prize 2009 are to use part of their prize money for migraine research. Marten Scheffer, professor of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, will work together with Albert van den Berg of the University of Twente and migraine specialist Michel |Ferrari of the Leiden University Medical Centre to approach the illness from an unconventional angle. Scheffer sees a great advantage in collaborating with colleagues from different disciplines. 'It will give us new angles from which to look at problems'.
According to Scheffer, you can see a migraine attack as a tipping point in the brain: activity in the brain spins out of control. 'Normally brain cells fire in a controlled manner following, for example, a sensory stimulus', he explains. 'But prior to a migraine attack the firing in a small area of the brain runs out of control because of the activation of one cell by another. And then all hell is let loose.' Hyperactive brain cells cause, amongst other things, an increased concentration of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which makes cells even more sensitive to stimuli. This hyperactivity of the brain cells then spreads through the brain like a wave.
Up to now most migraine research targets the attack itself. But there are many unanswered questions about how and why these intense headaches occur. Scheffer and his colleagues want to get to the bottom of this. The moment brain activity runs riot, i.e., the tipping point, is very important. Concentrations of glutamate and other substances that indicate how close you are to the tipping point can be measured. 'We want to monitor migraine sufferers over time, and examine to what extent blood counts of these substances change at the onset of a migraine attack', Scheffer explains.
'Migraine attacks are often triggered by light and sound, so we also want to look at how brain activity in migraine patients changes in response to this sort of stimulus. Once you understand why a migraine attack starts, you're on track for finding preventive medication.'