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This article was published in January 2013. The information may be out of date. Please check our epilepsy information or our site A-Z.

Epilepsy and migraine: shared genetic cause

16 Jan 2013

X-ray of brain with migraine There could be a genetic link between epilepsy and migraine according to new research that was conducted in the US – suggesting that the link may run in families.


Scientists from Columbia University, New York, looked at 730 patients with epilepsy from 501 families. The findings (published in the journal Epilepsia) show that having a strong family history of seizure disorders increases the chance of having ‘migraine with aura’.

This means that a shared gene could cause both epilepsy and migraine. Although previous studies have suggested a link, scientists have never proven a clear shared genetic cause.
In a person with epilepsy, an ‘aura’ is a focal (partial) seizure that is a warning of a bigger seizure coming. In this case, the aura is specific to migraine. It is experienced as symptoms including blind spots, flashing lights and speech problems before the headache pain.

Asian woman with migraine holds her forehead in painThese new results show that people with three or more close relatives with a seizure disorder were more than twice as likely to experience migraine with aura (MA). This shows that the stronger the genetic cause of epilepsy within the family, the higher the rates of MA. This is evidence that a gene exists that causes both epilepsy and migraine.

“Epilepsy and migraine are each individually influenced by genetic factors,” said lead author Dr Melodie Winawer. “Our study is the first to confirm a shared genetic susceptibility and migraine in a large population of patients with common forms of epilepsy.

“Our study demonstrates a strong genetic basis for migraine and epilepsy, because the rate of migraine is increased only in people who have close (rather than distant) relatives with epilepsy.”

Further studies of other conditions and epilepsy could help to improve the quality of life for people with epilepsy. Simon Wigglesworth, deputy chief executive at Epilepsy Action said: “It means that steps can be taken to improve diagnosis and treatment for people living with epilepsy and co-existing conditions. By understanding how genes work, more targeted treatments could be developed in the future.”

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