When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery Of Brain Freeze Drink that Slurpee too fast, and you risk an attack of "brain freeze." Scientists are fascinated by the headaches caused by consuming cold things. But alas, they still don't know where ice cream headaches come from.
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When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery Of Brain Freeze

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When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery Of Brain Freeze

When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery Of Brain Freeze

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A cool thing to do on a hot summer day is to have an ice cream bar. And I've been up for several hours. It's not that hot yet, but it's plenty hot enough. So, you know, I got myself a box here of chocolate-covered ice cream bars. Think I'll have one right now.



JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Renee. Renee, hang on.

MONTAGNE: Hi, Joe Palca.

PALCA: Are you aware of the danger you face eating one of those ice creams?

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Right. Gaining weight?

PALCA: No. I mean ice cream headache.

MONTAGNE: A brain freeze?

PALCA: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. You know, I've always wondered about brain freeze. I mean, I get them. I get them when I drink a really cold drink really fast out in the heat. But Joe, you're a science correspondent, what generally causes a brain freeze?

PALCA: Well, I'm so glad you asked that because that's the question I'm going to address in this installment of our series Summer Science.

Lucky coincidence.

Yes, isn't it?


PALCA: Anyway, if we're going to look at this scientifically, we're going to need to be precise about what we mean by brain freeze. So I consulted Jorge Serrador. He's with the Department of Veterans Administration and he studies headaches. He says a brain freeze is what you get when you eat or drink something really cold, really quickly.

DR. JORGE SERRADOR: You get this localized pain, usually sort of in that forehead area.

PALCA: And the pain can be quite intense. But it doesn't last very long. Stop eating or drinking the cold stuff, and the pain goes away in 30 or 40 seconds. And guess what, you remember your mother was always telling you not to wolf down your food. She was right.

SERRADOR: Drink slow, or eat slow, and you probably won't get the associated brain freeze.

MONTAGNE: Joe, but you were going to tell us why you get brain freeze when you eat an ice cream bar, like I am right now, or some cold drink.

PALCA: Exactly. So that's the question I put to Jorge Serrador.

SERRADOR: That is a tough question.

PALCA: Hmm. Helpful. Anyway, it turns out no one really knows for sure, but there are some theories. For example, Serrador has shown that just before the brain freeze hits, there's an increase in blood flow to the front of the brain.

SERRADOR: That's increasing the volume therefore; it's increasing sort of the localized pressure in that area.

PALCA: And the brain may be interpreting that increased pressure as pain.

SERRADOR: Another theory that's been put out there is that the cold actually stimulates a nerve in the roof of the mouth.

PALCA: And that stimulated nerve in the mouth goes into overdrive. It sends off a barrage of signals to the brain that once again the brain interprets as ouch. Although why the brain gets ouch from the cold and not brrr is a bit of a mystery.

Serrador isn't studying brain freeze to help the world become more comfortably when they eat ice cream or drink Slurpees. It turns out it's hard to study headaches, and a brain freeze headache is one of the few you can conjure up on demand. And scientists like Serrador are hoping understanding brain freeze will help them find better treatments for people with chronic headaches or brain injuries.

DR. ELIZABETH LODER: Some of these things that, you know, people think of as sort of silly or whimsical phenomena, they're actually really fascinating.

PALCA: That's Elizabeth Loder. She ought to know. Not only is she a headache researcher at Harvard Medical School, but she's also president of the American Headache Society.

So Renee, how's the ice cream? Did you get a headache?

MONTAGNE: The ice cream's delicious. But, you know, I've been eating it very slowly.

PALCA: Good.

MONTAGNE: And hopefully when I wolf it down right down I won't have a headache.


MONTAGNE: Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.


MONTAGNE: That's NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

You can find a video where you can see one of our editors induce brain freeze by eating a Popsicle - all in the name of science. And there's more from our Summer Science series about how to build a campfire or roast the perfect marshmallow, all at our website NPR.org.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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