Investigations into the role of nitric oxide and the large intracranial arteries in migraine headache

Cephalalgia. 1997 Dec;17(8):873-95. doi: 10.1046/j.1468-2982.1997.1708873.x.


Previous studies suggest that nitric oxide (NO) is involved in headaches induced by i.v. infusion of the vasodilator and NO donor glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) in healthy subjects. Extending these studies to sufferers of migraine without aura, it was found that migraineurs experienced a stronger headache than non-migraineurs. In addition, most migraineurs experienced a delayed migraine attack at variable times (mean 5.5 h) after GTN provocation. This biphasic headache response in migraineurs may be linked to hypersensitivity in the NO-cGMP pathway. Thus, compared to controls, migraineurs were found to be more sensitive to GTN-induced intracranial arterial dilatation, which is known to be mediated via liberation of NO and subsequent synthesis of cGMP Furthermore, histamine infusions in migraineurs induced headache responses and intracranial arterial responses resembling those induced by GTN in migraineurs. Histamine is known to liberate NO from the endothelium via stimulation of the H1 receptor, which is present in the large intracranial arteries in man. Because both immediate histamine-induced headache and intracranial arterial dilatation and delayed histamine-induced migraine are blocked by H1-receptor blockade, a likely common pathway for GTN and histamine-induced headaches/migraines and intracranial arterial responses may be via activation of the NO-cGMP pathway. The delay in the development of these experimental migraines may reflect activation of multiple physiological processes. The intracranial arteries of migraineurs were found supersensitive to the vasodilating effect of GTN (exogenous NO). This relates to clinical findings suggesting dilatation of the large intracranial arteries on the headache side during spontaneous migraine attacks. The function of arterial regulatory mechanisms involving NO in migraine was therefore studied. In peripheral arteries, no endothelial dysfunction of NO was found and cardiovascular and intracranial arterial sympathetic function was normal. A mild parasympathetic dysfunction may be involved and may, via denervation supersensitivity, be responsible for the observed supersensitivity to NO. Another possibility is that NO initiates a perivascular neurogenic inflammation with liberation of vasoactive peptides. NO also mediates a variety of other physiological phenomena. One of these, the pain-modulating effect observed in animals, was evaluated in a human study using GTN infusion and measurements of pain thresholds. No definite effects of GTN were demonstrated. The precise mechanisms involved in NO-triggered migraines and which part of the NO-activated cascade that is involved remain to be determined. The possibilities for pharmacological stimulation and/or inhibition of several steps of the NO-activated cascade increase rapidly and soon may be available for human studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cerebral Arteries / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Migraine Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Muscle Tonus / physiology
  • Nitric Oxide / physiology*
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Vasodilation / physiology*


  • Nitric Oxide
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase