“Brain freeze” occurs when someone drinks or eats something that is very cold and subsequently develops a transient and intense headache. Brain freeze is also known as an ice cream headache, cold stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Scientists have always speculated about the etiology of brain freeze. It was once thought to result from overstimulation of nerve endings located in the soft and hard palate. It was theorized that as the cold drink or food contacted the nerve endings, the nerve stimulation would cause the pain or headache. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and other institutes, lead by Dr. Jorge Serrador, have discovered that brain freeze is caused by transiently increased blood flow to the brain. To study the phenomenon, the researchers obtained 13 healthy volunteers. The study volunteers were given ice water to sip through straws that funneled the ice water directly onto the soft and hard palate of the upper mouth. The researchers used transcranial Doppler to document the blood flow through various cerebral arteries. The volunteers would signal when the brain freeze started and stopped. The researchers found that the onset of the headache correlated with dilatation of the anterior cerebral artery, which caused increased blood flow, and the resolution of the headache correlated with constriction of the anterior cerebral artery. This suggests that increased blood flow through the anterior cerebral artery is the cause of brain freeze, and not stimulation of nerve endings as was previously theorized. These results may be helpful in treating other headache types such as those caused by migraines, post traumatic syndromes, and other headache syndromes. The results of the study were presented as an abstract at the 2012 annual meeting of Experimental Biology which was entitled “Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During ‘Brain Freeze’”. Future research should focus on identifying if vasodilation or increased blood flow to the brain occurs in other types of headaches, and whether drugs that prevent vasodilation can be used to treat other more common headaches.
EurekaAlert! Press Release: Changes in brain’s blood flow could cause ‘brain freeze’