People who suffer from migraines have differences in the way their brains process sensory information, including pain, according to a study published in the current issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital compared 24 people who get migraines to 12 people who don't. What they found was that the somatosensory cortex area of the brain was an average of 21 percent thicker in those with migraine.

“Repeated migraine attacks may lead to, or be the result of, these structural changes in the brain,” said study author, Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani, of Mass. General's Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, in a news release. “Most of these people had been suffering from migraines since childhood, so the long-term over stimulation of the sensory fields in the cortex could explain these changes. It’s also possible that people who develop migraines are naturally more sensitive to stimulation.”

Hadjikhani said the results indicate that the brain’s sensory mechanisms are important components in migraine.

“This may explain why people with migraines often also have other pain disorders such as back pain, jaw pain, and other sensory problems such as allodynia, where the skin becomes so sensitive that even a gentle breeze can be painful,” he said.

Other diseases also may result in changes to the cortex. The area becomes thinner, for example, in neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Migraines are a type of painful headache that can be disabling — with symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to a heightened sensitivity to light and sound.

Women are three times more likely than men to get migraines and many sufferers have a family history of the condition, according to the study.