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Virtual roller coaster rides reveal mysteries of major migraines

A roller coaster simulation led to real-life symptoms for some people who experience severe headaches.

An IRL roller coaster.

Compared with the slow climb to the top of a real-world roller coaster, the nail-biting moment when you're suspended in air, and the scream-wracked plummet, a digitally simulated roller coaster ride seems pretty dull. But what if that virtual coaster was used to help scientists figure out more about migraines? Yeah, that's a bit cooler.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Neurology strapped in 40 people for a simulated roller coaster ride -- half of whom regularly had migraine headaches. During the study, no one actually experienced a migraine, but the migraine-prone participants reported more motion sickness and dizziness than did participants who don't get the headaches. 

Researchers also found that during the rides, migraine-inclined participants had more nerve cell activity in some areas of the brain and less in other areas. Researchers say further study of those changes is needed but that the discovery is a step in the right direction. "By identifying and pinpointing these changes, our research could lead to a better understanding of migraine, which could in turn lead to the development of better treatments," paper co-author Arne May, a professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany, said in a press release.

Millions of people regularly experience migraines, May said, and those who experience the headaches often complain of balance problems, dizziness and "misperception of their body's place in space." In the study, the people with migraines experienced an average of four of the headaches per month. 

During their virtual roller coaster ride, participants plugged up their ears with headphones, lay inside a scanner and watched simulations for about half an hour. They heard the sound of the car's friction on the rail and viewed animated scenes leading upward, downward, left and right.

Researchers took brain scans of each participant using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which detects activity in the brain by looking at changes in blood flow. Then participants answered a questionnaire about their perceived levels of symptoms, such as motion sickness and dizziness. 

About 65% of participants who experience migraines also experienced dizziness during the virtual ride. That dropped to 30% in people who don't get the headaches. Participants were asked what their symptom intensity for motion sickness was on a scale of 1-180, and the migraine-inclined averaged an answer of 47, compared with 24 for the control group. People with migraines also experienced longer and more-intense symptoms. 

Examining the brain scans, researchers observed changes in nerve cell activity in certain areas. People who routinely experience migraines outside of the simulated roller coaster ride had increased activity in five areas of the brain, including areas involved in visual processing. 

The changes in nerve cell activity correlated with migraine disability and motion sickness scores, according to the study. 

May said the researchers also saw more nerve cell activity in people with migraine within the pontine nuclei, an area of the brain that helps regulate movement and other motor activity. The increase "could relate to abnormal transmission of visual, auditory and sensory information in the brain," he said. 

"Future research should now look at larger groups of people with migraine to see if our findings can be confirmed," May said in the release. Meanwhile, before I pass judgment on a virtual version of a roller coaster again, I'll remember how it could potentially unravel migraine mysteries.