Women who get migraines have different levels of certain fats in their blood than women who don’t get these headaches, a small new study suggests.

If confirmed, the new findings could lead to a blood test that could diagnose patients with migraines, the researchers said.

Currently, patients are diagnosed with migraines on the basis of the symptoms they report, said study author Dr. B. Lee Peterlin, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “In other words, there is no biomarker or blood test that can help us to differentiate” people who get migraines from those who do not, she said.

In the study, the researchers examined blood samples from 52 women with episodic migraines and 36 women who did not have any headaches. “Episodic migraines” means having migraine headaches up to 14 days per month; people who have more migraines than that are diagnosed with chronic migraines. The women in the study had headaches about six days per month, on average.

The researchers tested the women’s blood samples for a class of lipids that had previously been shown to play a role in regulating energy balance and inflammation, according to the study. [Ouch: 10 Odd Causes of Headaches]

The investigators found that the levels of lipids called ceramides were lower in the women with episodic migraines than in the women who did not have any headaches. The women with migraines had about 6,000 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of ceramides in their blood on average, compared with about 10,500 ng/ml in the women without headaches.

Moreover, it also turned out that women’s risk of migraines increased with higher levels of two types of a different lipid, called sphingomyelin.

These results suggest that the lipids examined in the study may be involved in causing migraines; however, further study of this question is needed, the researchers said.

In another experiment in the new study, the investigators looked at the levels of the lipids in blood samples from 14 participants, without knowing which of the women had migraines. They found that they were able to correctly identify, based on the blood test, the women with migraines and those who did not have any headaches.

“This study is a very important contribution to our understanding of the underpinnings of migraine, and may have wide-ranging effects in diagnosing and treating migraine if the results are replicated in further studies,” Dr. Karl Ekbom, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who was not involved in the new research, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study, published today (Sept. 9) in the journal Neurology.

However, the study had some limitations: All of the participants were women, and it did not include people with chronic migraines, who have headaches 15 or more days per month, Ekbom noted.

Previous research has linked migraines to lipid metabolism problems, such as hypercholesterolemia, a condition in which people have very high levels of cholesterol in the blood, the authors of the new study said.

A genetic mutation, known as GBA, that leads to early onset of Parkinson’s disease and severe cognitive impairment (in about 4 to 7 percent of all patients with the disease) also alters how specific lipids, ceramides and glucosylceramides are metabolized. Mayo Clinic researchers have found that Parkinson’s patients who do not carry the genetic mutation also have higher levels of these lipids in the blood. Further, those who had Parkinson’s and high blood levels were also more likely to have cognitive impairment and dementia. The research was recently published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

Cognitive impairment is a frequent symptom in Parkinson’s disease and can be even more debilitating for patients and their caregivers than the characteristic motor symptoms. The early identification of Parkinson’s patients at greatest risk of developing dementia is important for preventing or delaying the onset and progression of cognitive symptoms. Changing these blood lipids could be a way to stop the progression of the disease, says Dr. Mielke.

There is a suggestion this blood lipid marker also could help to predict who will develop Parkinson’s disease and this research is ongoing.

“There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, but the earlier we catch it — the better chance we have to fight it,” says Dr. Mielke. “It’s particularly important we find a biomarker and identify it in the preclinical phase of the disease, before the onset even begins.”

Dr. Mielke’s lab is researching blood-based biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease because blood tests are less invasive and cheaper than a brain scan or spinal tap — other tools used to research the disease.