The Washington Post

New insights into brain freezes

Summer is coming, and that means it’s getting to be brain-freeze season.

We’re all plenty familiar with the excruciating sensation that consumes us when we consume an icy-cold beverage: That combination of agonizing ache and numbness, the sudden jolt of pain to the brain.

But for all its familiarity, “brain freeze,” or “Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia“ remains largely mysterious to the scientific community. What exactly causes that mind-bending pain? And what might we learn about human physiology by unraveling this mystery?

A team of researchers reporting on their as-yet-unpublished work with brain freeze at the meeting “Experimental Biology 2012“ in San Diego on Sunday thinks it’s set of changes in blood flow to the brain that causes the notorious malady.

In their study abstract “Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During ‘Brain Freeze,’” the group of scientists notes that people who suffer migraine headaches are more prone to brain freeze than others. That led them to consider that the two conditions might share common roots -- and that other kinds of headaches such as those caused by combat injuries. Because it’s pretty easy to induce brain freeze, the researchers figure that learning how it works might help us better understand other kinds of headaches, too.

So the team enlisted study subjects, hooked them up to transcranial Doppler devices to monitor blood flow in brain arteries, and watched what happened when they sipped water. In one set of tests, study participants sipped ice water with the straw pressing into their upper palate, inviting brain freeze. In another, they sipped room-temperature water.

The recruits were instructed to raise their hand at the first sensation of brain freeze and to do so again when the pain ceased.

The transcranial Doppler revealed that, in brain-freeze situations, the anterior cerebral artery dilated swiftly, flooding the brain with blood, at the moment when the participants raised their hands to signal pain. Shortly thereafter, that anterior cerebral artery constricted -- and the pain abated.

The researchers surmise the dilation and constriction of the anterior cerebral artery are part of a self-protective mechanism; in response to the sensation of severe cold, the body floods the brain with warm blood to keep that vital organ operating. But because the brain is stuck inside an inflexible skull, the flood of blood might increase pressure, which likely hurts. So, the researchers reason, the artery constricts to relieve that pressure.

That new knowledge isn’t likely to protect us from brain freeze. But it could, the researchers suggest, lead to new treatments for other, more debilitating kinds of headache.


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