It hits you suddenly, when you’re just relaxing, sipping on a Slurpee or downing some ice cream. That cold, seizing headache known as brain freeze. But, what’s happening there? What is brain freeze anyway?
Turns out scientists didn’t really know what brain freeze was or how it worked until recently. Today, researchers presented their work on brain freeze at the Experimental Biology annual meeting. What they found is that the ice-cream induced headaches you feel are probably due to a change in blood flow to the brain.
To figure out what was going on, researchers asked volunteers to come into the lab and intentionally give themselves brain freeze by sipping ice water through a straw. While they sat in pain, the researchers watched where the blood in their brains was flowing. They showed that the pain seemed to be related to a sudden change in blood moving in a specific part of the brain called the anterior cerebral artery. That’s one of the two main arteries in the brain, both of which supply blood to big parts of your noggin.
Their theory is this. The brain needs to work all the time, so it’s primed to signal us to stop doing anything that might hurt it. The brain is also a closed system inside your head. So to keep the brain working, it has to stay at a certain temperature. When you drink something cold, that temperature drops. To compensate, the brain sends warm blood into the brain. That sudden rush of warm blood increases the blood pressure in the brain, and causes pain.
While brain freeze itself isn’t dangerous at all - it goes away after a minute or so - understanding how it works could lead to insights into other, more debilitating headaches like migraines. But migraines themselves are hard to study, because you never know when they might start. Brain freeze, on the other hand is easy to induce in the lab.
So using these brain imaging techniques to see what’s going on in a frozen brain, could help researchers develop better treatments for those with less-predictable, longer lasting headaches.
Image: eyeliam, Flickr