The Science Of 'Brain Freeze' And Ice Cream Headaches : Short Wave Summer's here. Time for a cool treat. So, you grab a popsicle from the freezer. Ahh ... that's better. Until, out of nowhere, a sharp sudden pain rushes to your forehead. You've got brain freeze!

We talk with neuroscientist Caroline Palavicino-Maggio about the science behind these short-lived cold-induced headaches. Plus, some listener mail.

What are your daily science curiosities? Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Micro Wave: What Is 'Brain Freeze'?

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(SOUNDBITE OF MICROWAVE, MUSIC)

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

Hey, nerds. Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE producer Brit Hanson, who's got a fun summer Micro Wave for us.

BRIT HANSON, BYLINE: Yes. I've been out on the summer reporting beat.

SOFIA: OK.

HANSON: By which I mean sitting out on the back porch, trying to keep cool (laughter) with the help of my favorite summer treat. Do you know what it is?

SOFIA: Actually, friendship points. I do - a vanilla malt.

HANSON: Oh, my God. It is. Yes. What's yours?

SOFIA: Well, mine is absolutely same level of classiness, a giant Mountain Dew slushie.

HANSON: (Laughter) Oh, Maddie.

SOFIA: Listen, Brit.

HANSON: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Think about it. You're sitting there. You got that frozen neon-green liquid candy going straight into your bloodstream. Magical.

HANSON: Oh, you're right. You're right. You're right. You're cooling off, slurping down your slushie. There's nothing better - until bam. Out of nowhere, a sharp, sudden pain rushes to your forehead.

SOFIA: Wait. Are we talking about brain freezes today?

HANSON: Yes. Yes, we are.

SOFIA: Yes.

HANSON: You know, that intense pain that you get when you eat or drink something that's really cold a bit too fast.

SOFIA: It's all fun and games and ice cream until somebody gets hurt, Brit.

HANSON: (Laughter).

SOFIA: I mean, but seriously though, are you going to tell us what it's about, like why we get brain freezes? 'Cause I want to know.

HANSON: Yes. That's what I'm here to talk about, Maddie. Today on the show...

SOFIA: Yes.

HANSON: ...Why some of us get those cold-induced headaches. We talked to a neuroscientist to find out.

SOFIA: Plus, it's a Micro Wave. So we've got some listener mail.

HANSON: And, Maddie, they're all about you.

SOFIA: Oh, God.

HANSON: So buckle up (laughter).

SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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SOFIA: OK, Brit. We are talking about brain freeze today, also known as ice-cream headache. Who'd you talk to?

HANSON: Well, I called up an expert.

CAROLINE PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: My name is Caroline Palavicino-Maggio. And I am a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

HANSON: And, Maddie, get this - Caroline says that her kids actually like to have brain freeze competitions, where they race to see who can get a cold headache first.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: So they'll have three scoops chocolate ice cream...

HANSON: Which they basically eat as fast as they possibly can.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: (Laughter) And whoever gets there first, whoever feels the first sensation wins.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

HANSON: Oh, my gosh. This is what happens when your parent's a neuroscientist.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: You influence your kids' behavior in many different ways.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: Honestly, this is hilarious. Scientist mom. Scientist mom.

HANSON: I know, right? So Caroline told me that the technical term for brain freeze is...

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.

SOFIA: Yeah. I could've told you that. I definitely - I could've told you that.

HANSON: Right? Right? Which I made her say so that I didn't have to. And it is in fact an actual type of headache, one that comes and goes super quickly, like in 30 seconds or so.

SOFIA: OK. So why exactly do these short-lived cold-induced headaches happen?

HANSON: Well, the exact reason is still a bit of a mystery. But what's generally agreed upon is that there's a set of very sensitive nerves and blood vessels in the roof of your mouth and in the back of your throat, and when whatever cold treat your eating touches the roof of your mouth or even just generally makes your mouth really cold, these nerves sense...

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: The change in temperature and causes this change in vasodilation and constriction.

HANSON: Scientists are still figuring out what happens when. But basically, these nerves get this little shock. And nearby blood vessels rapidly change, shrinking, then expanding.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: And that change in shape of the blood vessel is what causes this sensation of pain.

HANSON: It's essentially your nerves and blood vessels working together to send the brain a danger signal through the trigeminal nerve, which is one of the major facial nerves.

SOFIA: And that danger signal is sent in the form of pain but, like, not in your mouth, higher up, like in your head?

HANSON: Yep. exactly.

SOFIA: So it's sort of like, ugh, ouch, ouch, shut it down...

HANSON: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...Shut it down?

HANSON: That's right. It's kind of the brain's way of protecting itself.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: Pain is a good thing. It's the way your brain is telling you, OK, whatever you're doing, you have to stop. It actually brings you aware of things that may cause harm to you.

SOFIA: I mean, this makes sense to me. Your brain is like, please don't freeze me. So is this dangerous in any way?

HANSON: That's a really good question, and I actually wondered the same thing after hearing all this. But I have good news. No, brain freeze is not dangerous in any way. And Caroline says that it should go away in less than a minute or so. And, Maddie, here's another interesting fact - not everybody gets brain freeze.

SOFIA: Wow. I really thought everybody got them.

HANSON: I know, right? It's hard to tell just how many people do because researchers aren't exactly clamoring to study this - since it's not dangerous, you know? But there are wide-ranging estimates. Caroline said that between 30% and 50% of the population is a pretty common estimate. It also appears that brain freeze may be more common for people who get migraines.

SOFIA: OK. So did Caroline share any tips for, like, how to avoid it or to make it less bad?

HANSON: OK. So she shared a few theories. Though, like I said, this isn't super widely studied. And because the duration of these headaches is so short, it's actually kind of hard to say whether one of these cold-induced headaches passes on its own or if the intervention actually helps.

SOFIA: OK.

HANSON: That said...

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: Some people say that if you take a sip of even just room-temperature water before and after your bite, that that can prevent brain freeze. Other people have talked about lifting your tongue up to the roof of your mouth.

HANSON: Other folks say try eating or drinking your cold treat a little bit slower.

SOFIA: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

HANSON: (Laughter). You're right. You're right, Maddie. You know, for some of us, brain freeze is just one of the hazards of summer.

SOFIA: I accept the risk. I accept the risk.

HANSON: (Laughter) OK. Are you ready for a bit of listener mail?

SOFIA: All right. Let's do it.

HANSON: OK. So I curated a couple of listener notes with you in mind, specifically, because we got a ton - and I do truly mean a ton - of emails after you shared that you're moving on from SHORT WAVE in the coming months.

SOFIA: That is delightful. And also, I'm sweating a lot right now just thinking about these.

HANSON: (Laughter) OK. So this first one comes from Pattie (ph). (Reading) I just wanted to drop a line to let Maddie know that she will be sorely missed. I work midnights and drive 40 minutes home in the morning, and her passion and enthusiasm makes the drive so much shorter and easier.

SOFIA: Oh, my gosh. Thank you, Pattie. That's really nice.

HANSON: (Laughter) OK. I got another one. This one comes from Em (ph). (Reading) Thank you so much for being a steady and uplifting voice, speaking truth and facts about science in a fun and informative way during some of what was the most challenging years for all of us. Good luck. And please come back to the podcast and let us know how you're doing from time to time.

Maddie?

SOFIA: Mmm hmm?

HANSON: The people want a firm commitment.

SOFIA: (Laughter) OK.

HANSON: Will you come back to visit?

SOFIA: You can't keep me away, Brit Hanson. You can't keep me away.

HANSON: (Laughter).

SOFIA: But also, let's talk about freelance rates. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

HANSON: OK. OK. I have one more. Can you handle it?

SOFIA: Absolutely not. Let's do it.

HANSON: So this last one comes from a listener named Rachel (ph). (Reading) Maddie has been an inspirational figure to me as a young person interested in science and science communication.

SOFIA: Oh, no. I'm going to cry.

HANSON: (Reading) As a queer person, it's been so inspiring to see a queer journalist talking openly on the podcast about bringing more diversity into science and creating more inclusive environments. I've been a listener since one of the very first episodes about the health risks of vaping. And I will very much miss Maddie's lighthearted humor and banter on the show. Thank you for all that you've done.

SOFIA: Brit, I did not expect to cry gay tears right now. I'm not - I didn't...

HANSON: Aw, gay tears are welcome here.

SOFIA: This is really nice.

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SOFIA: Rachel, I appreciate you. Thank you. And don't worry. I promise you, there are plenty of queerdos (ph) remaining on this SHORT WAVE team for you.

HANSON: Present. Reporting for duty.

(LAUGHTER)

HANSON: Maddie, everybody loves you and is going to miss you, including me. But we still have a couple of months before you officially leave. And we're...

SOFIA: Yes.

HANSON: ...Going to enjoy every single one of them.

SOFIA: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely we will.

Thank you so much, Brit. And thanks to all of you who have written in. I love you. We love hearing from you. If you've got a note to share, you can email us at shortwave@npr.org.

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SOFIA: This episode was produced and reported by Brit Hanson.

HANSON: Fact-checked by Indi Khera and edited by Viet Le.

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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