Found: The Cause of Brain Freeze and Ice Cream Headaches

By Sarah Zhang | April 25, 2012 10:52 am

spacing is important
Ow, my anterior cerebral artery!

Next time a bite of ice cream is ruined by brain freeze, you’ll know what to blame. New research suggests that changes in blood flow in the brain—and through the anterior cerebral artery in particular—are correlated with that flash of pain while eating cold food.

In a study presented at the Experimental Biology conference this week in San Diego, researchers got 13 participants to sip ice water through a straw pressed right against the roof of their mouths—prime conditions for brain freeze. Blood flow in their brain was measured using transcranial Doppler as they sipped. At the moment the ice water sippers got brain freeze, the anterior cerebral artery dilated to let blood rush through the brain. When the artery constricted again, the pain also subsided.

Jorge Serrador, who carried out the research, speculates that brain freeze is a self-defense mechanism for the brain. A rush of warm blood keeps the vital organ from getting cold. (On the other hand if the brain gets too hot, yawning may be one way of cooling it down.) The downside of that hot blood rush is that forcing more blood in the skull is like forcing more things into an overstuffed bag. And that high pressure situation in the skull translates into a headache. Luckily, in the case of brain freeze, it’s over pretty quick. Carry on with your ice cream.

Image via Shutterstock / Jan Mika

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?
MORE ABOUT: brain freeze, cold
  • Guest

    This research is exciting – especially for those who suffer from CLUSTER MIGRAINES. The only medication that worked – Sansert – was taken off the market a few years ago. Now there is nothing except oxygen and large doses of prednisone – which is never good.
    Fortunately these migraines come  in episodes (hence the name cluster) than can be up to 3 years apart. However, when an episode takes hold you are a slave to the pain that comes mostly at night and consists of intense pain several times during the night that must just be suffered through.  Imitrex helps somewhat but cannot be taken often enough to help completely.
    Hopefully this research will lead to some progress with Cluster Migraines.
    If anyone has any further information on Cluster Migraines please put it out there in the great Googable cyber world.

  • SilenceIsGolden

    Nice to see that the brain and our body is (once again) more brilliant than we!

  • Dcinnovator

    BTW- if you get brain freeze from say a bowl of ice cream, if you hold the cold bowl up to your forehead it will immediately dissipate. I learned that from a kid years ago. . . doesn’t work so well with ice cream cones lol.

  • Woodian1

    That huge picture, which is larger than the actual text, contributed immeasureably to my understanding of this issue, quite literally  Thanks for larding up your science page with fluff.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Discoblog

Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »