Gene Linked to Migraines Helped Humans Adapt to Northern Climates

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Researchers have found that early humans adapted to northern climates due to a gene which is also liked to migraine headaches.

It has been proved that migraines are less common in people of African descent than the Europeans. Moreover, the environment had a very important role, not to mention genetics. In their study, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Leipzig, Germany), and at the University College London (UK), focused on a gene called TRPM8. This gene regulates the ability to detect cold and it is also connected to vulnerability to migraines.

Researchers have discovered that this gene varies in people from different climates. In populations that live in cold regions, there is a genetic variant upstream from this gene that regulates it. They found that 88% of people with Finnish ancestry had this variant and only 5% of people with Nigerian ancestry had it.

Cold and Migraines Share a Link

The lead study author Felix Key (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) explained their findings:

“The direct link between cold sensation and migraine is unknown; however, both are related to pain which provides a possible, but speculative, link.”

In the last 50,000 years, humans spread to colonize colder places on Earth, and according to PLoS Genetics, they had to adapt genetically to survive the migration to colder regions.

The gene that controls our receptor of detecting and responding cold temperature is TRPM8. It looks like it has a variant in people that have lived in cold climates for the last thousands of years. The variant could reduce the ability to detect cold or feel pain from it.

Researchers have found that variant common in populations that have lived in cold climates or in high latitudes for the past 25,000 years.

Adaptation to cold temperatures could also be a link to the variation in migraine prevalence in different populations, explains senior study author Aida Andres (University College London, UK):

“Most genetic variants have very similar frequencies across human populations. So it was surprising that this (variant) is at very low frequency in some populations, say Yoruba, Nigeria, and very high frequency in others, for example Finnish in northern Europe.”

Stressors Like Cold Temperatures Can Trigger Migraines

However, the cause of migraines is still a mystery. People with northern European descent suffer from migraines, but there are only 10-15% cases.

A researcher at Pacific University (Forest Grove, Oregon), who wasn’t involved in the study, Andy Weyer, argues that a person’s DNA can contain the variant but it “does not mean that they will suffer from migraines”.

But migraines can be triggered by cold, said Greg Dussor, at the University of Texas at Dallas, (not involved in the study):

“Stressors, or deviations from normal patterns, seem to be triggers for migraine attacks and exposure to cold is a stressor that the body doesn’t like. The migraine might be a warning sign that the stressor, in this case cold, could be dangerous and the person should protect themself from the temperature.”

Rex Austin

Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere

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