Grammy Reporter Serene Branson Suffered Complex Migraine, Not Stroke, Doctor Says

A complex migraine can cause stroke-like symptoms, including slurred speech.

February 14, 2011, 3:30 PM

Feb. 17, 2011— -- A doctor who treated Serene Branson, the CBS Los Angeles reporter whose garbled live report from Sunday's Grammy awards had many wondering if she suffered a stroke on the air, said a complex migraine was to blame.

"Her description of the events is really entirely typical of complex migraine," said Dr. Andrew Charles, director of the Headache Research and Treatment Program in the UCLA Department of Neurology, who saw Branson this morning.

A symptom of migraine aura is "dysphasic language dysfunction," in which people know what they want to say but they can't get the words out. This is similar to aphasia, which can signal a stroke or a tumor.

"Imaging studies ruled out other kinds of problems like a stroke or primary brain event," Charles said.

Like a stroke, a complex migraine can disturb blood flow in the brain. But the main event in a migraine is "a storm of brain activity" that causes "waves of change in brain function" that spread across the brain, Charles said.

"There are dramatic changes in blood flow, but in the case of migraine, the changes don't reach the point where they actually damage the brain," Charles said. "There are no residual effects."

The video of the episode was upsetting to watch, as Branson's speech suddenly became slurred and incomprehensible. She appeared increasingly aware that something was wrong during the broadcast.

"Most people are aware that they're not speaking coherently and it's frightening when people understand that they're not making sense," Charles said. "It is typical for people to be quite upset by the event."

Branson was examined shortly after the incident by paramedics on location. Her vital signs were normal and she was not hospitalized.

Although Branson said she'd never experienced a complex migraine before, she indicated that they may run in her family, Charles said.

"If it was the first time it happened to someone, it would be important to evaluate them urgently," Charles said. "In her case, I think part of it was that she was feeling back to normal and she did have an understanding, even though she was frightened, that this was something that might tend to run in her family."

Migraine can Mimic Stroke

Several doctors who saw the event caught on tape said it should not be taken lightly.

"[That's a] pretty scary clip," said Dr. Larry Goldstein, director of Duke Stroke Center in Durham, N.C. "She appears to have an aphasia, [or] problem with expressive language, and right-sided facial weakness. Although this can be caused by other conditions, it is very concerning for stroke."

In the initial phases, it can be impossible to distinguish a complex migraine from a stroke, Charles said.

"The kinds of language problems she experienced and even the sensory changes she experienced can certainly be manifestations of a stroke, so that has to be the first concern."

The better-known symptom of complex migraine is visual disturbances or "aura," which causes sufferers to see sparkling light or wavy lines.

Numbness in the face and arms, something Branson experienced, also is common, Charles said.

Charles added that unless people have experienced a migraine before, it's important to rule out a stroke.

"If it's something that's happened to you before and you've been diagnosed with migraine, you can be reassured that it's likely to be the same thing. If it's the first time, the first concern has to be stroke," Charles said.

Charles said Branson's experience was likely an "isolated, rare event."

"She's in excellent shape and cleared to return to work with no limitations at all," Charles said, "and I don't expect that this is going to be a significant ongoing problem."

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