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Locusts: Plague Or Savior?

The newest thing in migraine research is locusts. It seems that a locust's reaction to stress may give us important details leading to a greater understanding of the causes of human migraines. This may lead to new methods of relieving migraine pain, says Mel Robertson, a Queen's University professor of biology.

Evolutionary Link

Along with student Corinne Rodgers, Robertson is examining the effect of the nervous system on breathing during stress induction as caused by high temperatures and oxygen deprivation. The two researchers have found that the locust's response to intense heat resembles a known disturbance in mammals that has been linked to migraines and stroke in human beings.

The locust shuts down certain systems and saves energy reserves by entering into a coma when conditions seem threatening. This coma resembles many of the mechanisms seen in humans at the start of a migraine. Dr. Robertson believes there may be an evolutionary link between locusts and humans in this respect.

Breathing Cycles

The researchers monitored the locusts' breathing cycles, which are manned by nerve cells located within the central nervous system. On experiencing intense heat or on being deprived of oxygen, the insects begin to breathe more rapidly and then fall into comas. Once the temperature decreases or oxygen levels rise, the insects recover.

“We find that the point of coma is always associated with a surge of extra-cellular potassium ions: the same as has been observed in human brain tissue during surgery,” says Rodgers who points out that potassium levels need to be higher inside the cells than outside of them for the nervous system to work as it should, “What we’re seeing is a failure of that ability to maintain this equilibrium--but in fact, in the locust, it appears to be an adaptive response to protect the system.”

Brain Architecture

Robertson's lab has done prior research which proved a genetic factor's involvement in this reaction to stress, suggesting a probable evolutionary link to the same behavior seen during human migraines. As Robertson explains, “It’s possible, for example, that the brain architecture necessary for increased sensitivity also predisposes areas of some people’s brains to become over-excited, and that migraines provide a means of temporarily ‘shutting things down.’”

While migraines have long been associated with this disturbance of the central nervous system, the mechanism causing this phenomenon has not been clearly understood. Getting a glimpse of how this disturbance works may be the missing link in finding new and more effective methods for the treatment of migraine headaches.

The researchers found that the locusts could be conditioned to tolerate stress and hope that human beings may be preconditioned to tolerate migraine triggers in the same manner since their nervous systems are so similar. As a result of this study, the Queen's research team has applied for two patents: one application serves to influence cellular pathways in the brain to withstand high temperatures, and the other application works to change and influence the pathways as a means of migraine treatment.