Biochemistry of primary headaches: role of tyrosine and tryptophan metabolism

G. D’Andrea, S. Cevoli, D. Colavito, A. Leon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The pathogenesis of migraine as well as cluster headache (CH) is yet a debated question. In this review, we discuss the possible role of the of tyrosine and tryptophan metabolism in the pathogenesis of these primary headaches. These include the abnormalities in the synthesis of neurotransmitters: high level of DA, low level of NE and very elevated levels of octopamine and synephrine (neuromodulators) in plasma of episodic migraine without aura and CH patients. We hypothesize that the imbalance between the levels of neurotransmitters and elusive amines synthesis is due to a metabolic shift directing tyrosine toward an increased decarboxylase and reduced hydroxylase enzyme activities. The metabolic shift of the tyrosine is favored by a state of neuronal hyperexcitability and a reduced mitochondrial activity present in migraine. In addition we present biochemical studies performed in chronic migraine and chronic tension-type headache patients to verify if the same anomalies of the tyrosine and tryptophan metabolism are present in these primary headaches and, if so, their possible role in the chronicity process of CM and CTTH. The results show that important abnormalities of tyrosine metabolism are present only in CM patients (very high plasma levels of DA, NE and tryptamine). Tryptamine plasma levels were found significantly lower in both CM and CTTH patients. In view of this, we propose that migraine and, possibly, CH attacks derive from neurotransmitter and neuromodulator metabolic abnormalities in a hyperexcitable and hypoenergetic brain that spread from the frontal lobe, downstream, resulting in abnormally activated nuclei of the pain matrix. The low tryptamine plasma levels found in CM and CTTH patients suggest that these two primary chronic headaches are characterized by a common insufficient serotoninergic control of the pain threshold.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-22
Number of pages6
JournalNeurological Sciences
Publication statusPublished - May 30 2015



  • Cluster headache
  • Migraine
  • Octopamine
  • Tryptamine
  • Tyramine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Dermatology

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