Migraines—more than just a headache

If you have ever had one, you know that migraines are often not typical, run-of-the-mill headaches. They cause intense throbbing pain, and can bring on nausea/vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and numbness and tingling in arms and legs. Even worse, these symptoms can last a few hours or up to three days in adults.

Advertisement for NINDS Migraine Trainer app

It is not just adults who suffer from these horrible headaches—studies have shown that 10% of children between the ages of 5 and 15 have migraines. And that number jumps for older kids: up to 28% of children between 15 and 19 experience migraines. When I worked in the pediatric neurology clinic, complaints related to migraines were one of the most common things I saw. And because around 90% of migraines are hereditary, the parents often had an idea of what was going on and could sympathize with their kids.

In addition to having to deal with the awful pain and additional symptoms, kids will often end up missing school when migraines strike. This can lead to bad grades and decrease participation in extracurricular activities. Clearly, migraines are more than “just a headache.”

Several triggers can lead to migraines. These include lack of sleep, skipping meals, dehydration, certain foods (unfortunately chocolate is a common one!), and stress. Learning to identify and avoid specific triggers has helped many patients- young and old- deal with their migraines.

To help teenagers take control of their migraines, NINDS developed an app, Migraine Trainer™. This free app includes features such as tracking warning signs and keeping a migraine log, which can be shared with parents and healthcare providers. In addition, the app offers tips and techniques for relaxation and deep breathing exercises to help lower stress levels.

We hope that this new app will help teens take control of their migraines and get back to living healthy, active lives.

Download Migraine Trainer™ from the App Store – Apple or Google Play.

Learn more about Migraine Trainer™

Music on the Brain

Since 2017, the NIH has partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on a program called Sound Health, and in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, NIH has just funded the first research grants for this initiative. A talented musician in his own right, NIH Director Francis Collins has written about these awards and the fascinating questions being asked about how music interacts with the brain. Here, I’d like to turn that question on its proverbial head and ask, “What is it about the minds of doctors and scientists that makes them love and create music?”

Some have said that being a doctor – facing life and death, delivering bad news to families, performing delicate surgeries – or a researcher – writing grants, having scientific papers rejected, redoing experiments over and over – are so intense and give so little instant gratification, that those who play these roles need some relaxation and release. It’s hard to find a group of physicians and researchers that doesn’t include at least a few hobbyist musicians. Music is the escape, they say, from the tragedy, the frustration, the need for intense focus in medicine and science.

There is doubtless some truth to this.  I vividly recall getting back to my hospital-owned studio apartment from 36 hours straight of hospital call and blowing off steam banging on the piano I had bought for $200 – almost a week’s salary for an intern.  But there is another connection that rings truer to me.  For me, music and biology are cut of exactly the same cloth. 

Restriction Enzyme – image credit: Sagar Aryal

After freshman year in college, I spent a summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island as an Undergraduate Research Participant.  I worked on a newly discovered group of proteins called restriction enzymes.  Restriction enzymes cut DNA, the genetic substance, in very specific parts of its sequence.  My mentor was quite excited about the potential for restriction enzymes to be used as tools to help scientists figure out the sequence of DNA and understand what makes each person’s DNA different from any other’s.  I, on the other hand, was thrilled with the restriction enzymes themselves.  They cut the two strands of DNA at sequences that were palindromes.  That is, on one strand, the sequence at which they cut could be read from left to right; on the other strand, the sequence was the same as that of the first strand, but only if you read it from right to left.  Imagine the symmetry of the “knife edges” of that enzyme that made it fit precisely into the place where the mirror image sequences lived and cut the DNA in equivalent places on both strands!

As a student of music theory and composition, I had studied fugues, a genre of music in which a simple theme is played in one voice. Then, while the theme is repeated in a second voice, it is played inverted in the first.  One voice plays the theme “left to right”; another plays it “right to left”.  And they dovetail perfectly to make a whole the function of which is greater than the sum of its parts.  Just like the restriction enzyme!

The cardiologist Robert S. Root-Bernstein, once wrote, “Thus, those doctors who have been most sensitive to their culture, and most inventive in their everyday lives, have also been most insightful in their work.  Music, the arts, poetry, and literature actually contribute in essential ways to the training of doctors and influence the way in which they perceive medicine.”*  Sound Health is not only a play on words for audiences and patients; it is a part of what makes doctors and scientists who and what we are.

* Root-Bernstein RS.  J Mol Cell Cardiol 19:1043-1051, (1987)

Dream big with NINDS!

During my short time at NINDS, the dedication of our staff to our institute’s mission and their clarity of thought and depth of knowledge have repeatedly exceeded my expectations. That is why I am so excited to ask them to take a step out of the daily churn of keeping up with new discoveries, latest techniques, and fast-approaching deadlines to consider the bigger picture with me—to dream big about advancing our knowledge about the brain over the next five years. That is what the process of strategic planning is all about—a chance during your journey to climb the highest mast and see where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what storms you might have to weather as you follow (or, perhaps, adjust) the course you’ve set to reach your destination. The planning process will help to ensure that NINDS policies, practices and functions align with our mission, allowing us to better serve and anticipate the needs of all our stakeholders, including the research and patient communities, as well as the public. In short, this process will keep us moving (asymptotically, perhaps) to meet our mission. The timing, I believe, is exactly right; the recent decade has brought many exciting developments for our community, of which we must now take stock to identify our best ways forward.

In my experience, the journey of strategic planning is at least as important as the destination, if not more so. When executed thoughtfully and viewed as a continuing, dynamic, and adaptable sequence of ebbs and flows, it builds solidarity, consensus, unified vision and purpose, and teamwork.  The process I’m leading is designed to give everyone—our employees, researchers, collaborators, practitioners, advocates, and the interested public—the chance to have their voices heard and valued, while dedicated stewards keep us accountable for moving forward. In this case, the stewards who will help translate the input we gather into priorities and goals are my thoughtful and determined colleagues from across NINDS and NIH who live and breathe our mission every day.

Continue reading “Dream big with NINDS!”

So Many Questions, So Little Time!

There are so many unsolved mysteries in biology and medicine! What causes Parkinson’s disease? How does our brain know what is important to remember and what is okay to forget? Why do some patients with multiple sclerosis have rapidly progressing symptoms while others have isolated episodes separated by months or years?

With so many questions to answer and so many diseases to treat, how does a scientist decide on which topic to study?

Continue reading “So Many Questions, So Little Time!”

Welcome to The Schor Line!

Nina Schor, M.D., Ph.D.
Deputy Director, NINDS

Hello! My name is Nina Schor, and I am the deputy director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). I have been here at NINDS for just over a year, so I am still a relative newcomer. When I thought about how I could contribute to the NINDS mission, I immediately seized on the idea of writing a blog for the public.

So why a blog? Because this is my opportunity to talk to you about what we do. Taxpayers like you fund our research. Students and trainees working in hospitals and research labs make up the future scientific workforce, while patients and their families are the beneficiaries of scientific discoveries and inventions. So, I figure who better to engage about the work being done here at NIH and how we go about doing it than you?

Continue reading “Welcome to The Schor Line!”