Most people have likely experienced brain freeze — the debilitating, instantaneous pain in the temples after eating something frozen — but researchers didn’t really understand what causes it, until now.
Previous studies have found that migraine sufferers are actually more likely to get brain freeze than people who don’t get migraines. Because of this, the researchers thought the two might share some kind of common mechanism or cause, so they decided to use brain freeze to study migraines.
Headaches like migraines are difficult to study, because they are unpredictable. Researchers aren’t able to monitor a whole one from start to finish in the lab. They can give drugs to induce migraines, but those can also have side effects that interfere with the results. Brain freeze can quickly and easily be used to start a headache in the lab, and it also ends quickly, which makes monitoring the entire event easy.
“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time,” study researcher Jorge Serrador, of Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. “It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation [the widening of the blood vessels] might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.”
This influx of blood can’t be cleared as quickly as it is coming in during the brain freeze, so it could raise the pressure inside the skull and induce pain that way. As the pressure and temperature in the brain rise, the blood vessel constricts, reducing pressure in the brain before it reaches dangerous levels.