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More Fun With Ice Cream: Researchers Find Cause of Brain Freeze

Ice-cream cone at Sweet Rose Creamery
Ice-cream cone at Sweet Rose Creamery

If you, like us, often eat your ice cream too fast and subsequently suffer from a crippling headache, it's not so much nature's punishment as it is a simple change in your body's blood flow. According to Discover, a team of scientists have traced the cause of brain freeze to a sudden rush of blood to the brain.

Researchers actually were attempting to study what factors induce headaches in general, including migraines and post-traumatic headaches that occur in soldiers injured during blast-related combat. Brain freeze, unlike other headaches, can be easily induced (cold drinks or foods placed right at the upper palate will do it) and lasts for only a short period of time, making it an ideal candidate for study.

Accordingly, 13 adult volunteers drank ice water through a straw "pressed against their upper palate," then drank the same amount of water at room temperature. Just as they felt the effects of brain freeze from the ice-cold water, the team found that the anterior cerebral artery dilated, flooding the brain with blood. The headache subsided when the artery constricted.

The researchers theorize that this dilation and constriction may be the brain's way of regulating its own temperature. The flood of warm blood prevents the brain from getting too cold but, as Discover explains, it's "like forcing more things into an overstuffed bag. And that high-pressure situation in the skull translates into a headache."

The results of the study, researchers hope, will help them understand, and develop effective treatments for, other types of headaches. Results of the study were presented this week at the Experimental Biology 2012 conference in San Diego.

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