23andme studies migraine using the power of crowds

23andMe offers direct-to-consumer genetic testing by analyzing a saliva sample. It provides information on predisposition for more than 90 traits and conditions ranging from acne to Alzheimer’s. Health-related results were suspended by the FDA because of the concern was that consumers may not be able to correctly interpret the health data, particularly regarding conditions such as Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s, various cancers, and other. What is available is genealogical data and information on several conditions which did receive FDA approval. As of June 2015, 23andMe has genotyped over 1,000,000 individuals.

After submitting a saliva sample, consumers are asked to complete a number of surveys about their medical conditions, including migraines, personal habits, and other information. This has led to some important discoveries, which have been published in scientific journals. Here are some results related to migraines.

23andme discovered three genes which make migraines more likely. This discovery is not as important as it seems because these genes increase the risk of migraines by a very small amount and because dozens of other migraine susceptibility genes are being continuously identified.

In 2012 23andme acquired CureTogether, a “health research project that brings patients and researchers together to find cures for chronic conditions”, where some of the following information comes from.

Here is interesting, but also not very surprising information on most commonly reported migraine triggers:

stress (85%)
insufficient sleep (72%)
dehydration (64%)
looking at bright sunlight (61%)
inhaling smoke/strong odors (57%)
staring at a computer screen (56%)
flashing or flickering lights (56%)
weather changes (50%)
low blood sugar (49%)
loud environments (48%)
heat (47%)
caffeine withdrawal (43%)
alcoholic beverages (42%)
large groups of people (28%)
bananas (6%)

More than 65% of migraine sufferers have tried acetaminophen (Tylenol®), but it doesn’t work very well for most people. Over 20% of people have tried an alcoholic beverage, even though it typically makes migraines much worse. In contrast, less than 20% of people have tried wrapping a cold towel around their head, and yet it is one of the more effective treatments listed by migraine sufferers on CureTogether.

Treatments rated as most effective for patients with migraine
1. Dark, quiet room
2. Sleep
3. Eliminate red wine
4. Passage of time
5. Eliminate MSG
6. Avoid smoke
7. Wear sunglasses
8. Intravenous DHE
9. Imitrex injection
10. Ice packs

According to 23andme, “When symptom data and treatment data come together, powerful things happen. Data from nearly 3,500 CureTogether members tell us that those who experience vertigo or dizziness with their migraines are three times more likely (18% vs 6%) to have a negative reaction to Imitrex®, a sumatriptan medication that is often prescribed for migraine sufferers”.

A word of caution about 23andme. I personally submitted my saliva for testing and completed many questionnaires to help with their research. However, some feel that 23andme’s promises of not sharing personal genetic information with anyone else could be undermined in the future, as it happened with Google. Here is an interesting blog post from the Scientific American on this topic entitled, 23andMe Is Terrifying, but Not for the Reasons the FDA Thinks

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