Migraines have long been suspected to have a genetic link since sufferers often had close relatives that also suffered from the condition. It is estimated that 12 per cent of the population of Western Europe and the US suffer from migraine attacks each year.
Recent research has also found that patients who experience migraine with aura are at much higher risk (seven times) for tissue damage known as infarcts in the cerebellar region of the brain than were those who experienced migraine without aura.
Researchers from Victoria University in New Zealand and Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia analysed DNA from 550 people and found that the mutation of a particular gene (Methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase) was far more common in those with the migraine with aura than those without. This mutation also leads to high levels of homocysteine.
"This mutation means migraine sufferers are likely to have higher levels of a particular amino acid or protein called homocysteine in the blood. But a diet rich in folate can reduce levels of homocysteine," said Dr Rod Lea.
Previous studies have also shown that folate, by reducing levels of homocysteine, can cut the risk of stroke.
"We decided to hone in on this gene because it had been implicated in a higher risk for strokes by other researchers and it is known that people who suffer from migraines are at greater risk of having a stroke later in life," said Lea.
Previous research has however found no link between blood homocysteine levels and migraine. Lea's team is hoping to organise clinical trials to assess how effective folate can be in reducing migraine symptoms.
Supplements may also help prevent migraine attacks in people for whom traditional drugs are not effective.