The 63-year-old chief executive couldn't do his job. He had been crippled by migraine headaches throughout his adult life and was in the middle of a new string of attacks. "I have but a little moment in the morning in which I can either read, write or think," he wrote to a friend. After that, he had to shut himself up in a dark room until night. So President Thomas Jefferson, in the early spring of 1807, during his second term in office, was incapacitated every afternoon by the most common neurological disability in the world.
The co-author of the Declaration of Independence never vanquished what he called his "periodical head-ach," although his attacks appear to have lessened after 1808. Two centuries later 36 million American migraine sufferers grapple with the pain the president felt. Like Jefferson, who often treated himself with a concoction brewed from tree bark that contained quinine, they try different therapies, ranging from heart drugs to yoga to herbal remedies. Their quest goes on because modern medicine, repeatedly baffled in attempts to find the cause of migraine, has struggled to provide reliable relief.
Now a new chapter in the long and often curious history of migraine is being written. Neurologists believe they have identified a hypersensitive nerve system that triggers the pain and are in the final stages of testing medicines that soothe its overly active cells. These are the first ever drugs specifically designed to prevent the crippling headaches before they start, and they could be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next year. If they deliver on the promise they have shown in studies conducted so far, which have involved around 1,300 patients, millions of headaches may never happen.
"It completely changes the paradigm of how we treat migraine," says David Dodick, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic's campus in Arizona and president of the International Headache Society. Whereas there are migraine-specific drugs that do a good job stopping attacks after they start, the holy grail for both patients and doctors has been prevention.