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.
- How Hallucinatory Art Led to a Better Understanding of Migraine Neurobiology (Boing Boing)
- Exploring the Visual Hallucinations of Migraine Aura: The Tacit Contribution of Illustration (Brain)
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.