Experts estimate that between 15 and 20 percent of migraine sufferers experience an aura, or an abnormal feeling marked by visual disturbances, such as dark spots, hallucinations or zigzag lines. These auras are an indication that a migraine is about to hit.
For those who suffer from migraines with aura, a new gene discovery may someday lead to relief, according to a study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Medicine.
A group of Canadian researchers discovered a mutation in a gene that regulates the flow of potassium. This genetic abnormality can cause nerves to be overstimulated, leading to the painful symptoms of migraines preceded by an aura.
Experts say these findings are an important step toward understanding more about the genetic factors underlying this extremely disabling disorder, and hold a lot of promise for developing an effective treatment.
"There have been other genes that have been identified for migraines and eventually, this could provide targets for treatment with patients with migraines," said ABC News Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser.
"Some genetic factors, as found in this study, might suggest some families are predisposed to migraine," said Dr. R. Allan Purdy, professor of medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "It all suggests a 'threshold' that when too low, migraine occurs. This threshold may be determined by genetic factors, and hence the importance of the study."
Dr. Joel Saper, founder and director of the Michigan Head and Neurological Institute, said while the discovery of the potassium gene defect is noteworthy, he's unsure if it will someday lead to a treatment that can help all migraine sufferers.
"It doesn't appear to be applicable to everyone with migraine," he said.
Despite that limitation, Besser believes it's part of the growing -- and promising -- trend of personalized medicine. "It may be that one day, a patient with migraines will come in to the office and the doctor will be able to say, 'You have a defect in this particular gene. I know this particular treatment is going to work for you,'" said Besser.