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Study finds genetic risk score correlates with headache prevalence and severity

By American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine   

Features Research

A higher polygenic risk score—a genetic analysis computed from a combination of several of a person’s genes—is associated with more frequent and severe headaches, according to the results of a new study from researchers at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, NY and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. The findings support the idea that a propensity for headaches has a genetic basis.

Daniel Larach, Anita Pandit, Matthew Zawistowski, Daniel Clauw, Gonçalo Abecasis, and Chad Brummett received a Resident/Fellow Travel Award from the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine for their abstract of the study, “Pain Precision Medicine: A Polygenic Risk Score Correlates With Headache Prevalence and Severity,” which will be presented on Saturday, November 17, 2018, during the 17th Annual Pain Medicine Meeting in San Antonio, TX.

Severe headaches affect more than 15% of Americans and account for 3% of all U.S. emergency room visits. In Europe, the annual societal cost of headaches is more than €170 billion. Despite such prevalence, scientists and healthcare providers know few details about a person’s genetics affects his or her propensity for headaches. Only one large-scale genetic study of severe headaches has been published, but its findings did suggest a genetic connection: it identified 28 different mutations that might contribute to a person’s likelihood of getting severe headaches.


To determine whether the mutations did in fact associate with headaches, Larach and colleagues constructed a polygenic risk score from them. The more mutations a person has, the higher the score. They then applied the risk score to a separate group of genetic data from 15,063 patients to confirm that those with a higher risk score were more likely to have severe headaches. They found that as risk scores increased, patients were more likely to have headaches, and that headache severity increased as well.

“These data support the hypothesis that there is a genetic component to severe headache,” the researchers concluded.

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