Touching Lives - December 2003
Understanding what triggers migraine
The condition is also more common than you’d think: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 12 men are affected with the debilitating headache, with the worst affected also experiencing nausea, distorted vision, dizziness, tingles, numbness, and even speech difficulties.
Dr Alex Shepherd of the Birkbeck School of Psychology doesn’t personally suffer with migraine, but explains what it feels like: “Patients often feel like their head is about to explode. I’ve been told that the pain of migraine is worse than the worst hangover you can possibly imagine.”
Alex has been at Birkbeck since 1998, and prior to this worked at the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit completing a three-year post-doc, following on her PhD from Cambridge in colour vision and perception. This background has provided essential training for her position now as a leading authority in the UK on migraine.
The Action Medical Research grant she has just received will help her take her work and theories on migraine even further. “I was delighted to receive the grant,” she explains. “I do lecturing and research here at Birkbeck with the lecturing having to take priority. So this new grant is extremely welcome — I’ll be able to employ another researcher so we can make some quick progress.”
Migraine can be triggered by a number of factors including stress, fatigue, and poor diet. But Alex is particularly interested in migraines set off by visual patterns. Her research will investigate how visual patterns induce migraine and why only some people are affected.
“There are some very potent patterns for neurons in the visual system — there are cells in the visual cortex [a Satsuma-sized piece of brain at the rear of the head which processes our vision — Ed.] that ‘like’ stripes. These cells are like edge detectors.
“Different cells like different widths of stripe, different cells like different orientations, some cells like motion. It’s a beautiful architecture — it’s really elegant, you can just go across the cortex seeing the different roles played by different cells.
“If you look at a certain pattern you’ll be giving these cells exactly what they like. They’ll respond to the pattern and your visual cortex will ‘light up’ with activity as the neurons do their job. But this intense activity is unnatural — it upsets the normal balance and this is what I want to explore further with the Action Medical Research grant.
“^If we can find out more about these visual triggers of migraine, then we can write guidelines for sufferers to try and minimise their exposure to them^.” The experiments are non-invasive and not unpleasant, so Alex hopes to recruit both people who suffer with migraine, and people who don’t.
“Some people experience more migraines than they need to and I’m sure that frequency can be reduced,” says Alex. “I wouldn’t say that no-one need ever have another migraine again, but we can certainly do lots more. We need to educate migraine sufferers and their doctors. I hope that the guidelines we formulate will be rolled out across the NHS and be included as a part of every GPs’ training. It’s also possible that new treatments will come out of this research.”