News & Research

Art Taught Scientists About Migraine’s Pathophysiology

Well before the use of MRI and fMRIs, drawings of visual auras gave researchers an indication of what happens in the brain at the onset of a migraine. These artistic representations – the most helpful of which were drawn by scientists who have migraine with aura – have led to crucial discoveries about the pathophysiology of migraine.

The most notable discovery is of the involvement of cortical spreading depression, now understood to be a key component of how migraine spreads through the brain. (Maggie Koerth-Baker’s elegant description of cortical spreading depression is “…electrical stimulation and depression moving through the cerebral cortex. Think about it like a wave, with a crest where electrical impulses are stronger than normal, followed by a trough where they are lower than normal.”)

An academic paper exploring the connection between drawings of visual auras and migraine research developments was published in the journal Brain in 2007. I learned about that paper when Boing Boing reported on it this week. Both are worth a read, though the Boing Boing article is much easier to get through.

This is a fascinating investigation even for those of us who don’t have visual auras. I love the idea artistic representations created by migraineurs played a pivotal role in understanding migraine.