Twin Study Offers New Insight Into Genetics of Migraine

DENVER – A new study finds that females with male twins are more likely to suffer from migraines without aura than are those with female twins, even though testosterone is thought to be protective. The findings, presented at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society, also hint at a possible role played by the prenatal environment.

The study marks the first time a large-scale twin dataset has been used to assess sex differences in underlying genetic factors of migraine, lead author Morgan Fitzgerald, a senior research associate at the University of California at San Diego, said in a presentation at the conference. The findings were previously published in Frontiers in Pain Research.

More Than Genetics

The researchers analyzed data regarding 51,872 participants in the Swedish Twin Registry. According to Fitzgerald, the database is ideal because it is large and includes both genders.

Per the database, female twins were more likely to have migraines without aura than were male twins (17.6% vs. 5.5%, respectively), reflecting global numbers that suggest 18% of females and 6% of males have migraines each year.

To better understand heritability, the researchers compared identical twins with fraternal twins, and looked for gender-related correlations, Fitzgerald said.

One analysis suggests that migraine is equally heritable in men and women with a broad sense heritability of 0.45 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.40-0.50). However, another analysis model provides evidence “that there are differences in the underlying genetic factors contributing to migraine across males and females,” she said.

Unexpectedly, the researchers also found that females with male twins were more likely to have migraines than were those with female twins (odds ratio, 1.51, 95% CI, 1.26-1.81) even though males are less affected by the headaches.

“These results suggest that the prominent sex difference in migraine prevalence is not entirely accounted for by genetic factors, while demonstrating that masculinization of the prenatal environment may increase migraine risk for females,” the authors wrote in the published study. “This effect points to a potential prenatal neuroendocrine factor in the development of migraine.”

Probing the Migraine Gender Gap

Commenting on the research, University of Texas at Dallas neuroscientist and headache researcher Gregory Dussor, PhD, said the new study is “a very unique approach to address the question of nature versus nurture in migraine. It was well designed and used robust statistical modeling.”

As for the findings, “the conclusion that genetics do not explain sex differences in migraine risk by themselves is not surprising given how big of a role hormones in later life are likely to play in the disease and how many factors there are that can influence hormone levels,” he said.

“On the other hand, the surprising part of the findings was that the presence of a male co-twin increases risk of migraine in females. I would have expected to see the opposite, given the lower prevalence of migraine in males and the seemingly protective role that male hormones can play in migraine.”

Overall, the study adds to data implicating environment and hormones in the migraine gender gap, he said. “One thing I wonder from this study is what influence a female co-twin growing up with a male co-twin can have on migraine susceptibility. That female co-twin may end up with a very different set of childhood experiences than if she was with another female co-twin. Twins generally spend an enormous amount of time together and the same sex versus opposite sex experiences are likely to be quite different. This may have an influence on migraine later in life.”

As for the value of the study in terms of diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of migraine, Dussor said, “it’s possible it could help to identify risk factors for higher migraine susceptibility but it’s far too early to know how this could be used.”

The authors have no disclosures. Dussor disclosed an NIH-funded grant to study the role of the hormone prolactin in preclinical migraine models.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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