Exploring the visual hallucinations of migraine aura: the tacit contribution of illustration

Brain. 2007 Jun;130(Pt 6):1690-703. doi: 10.1093/brain/awl348. Epub 2007 Jan 30.


The visual aura of migraine is a subjective phenomenon, and what the migraineur experiences is necessarily inaccessible to others. Fortunately, however, the sufferer can occasionally reveal what is being seen by means of graphic representation, enabling an otherwise closed 'window' to be opened on the transiently dysfunctioning brain. This article explores the unique contribution that illustration has made to understanding mechanisms subserving the visual aura. The most revealing illustrations are those made by the very few scientists who have recorded and analysed the scotomas, and in particular the expanding fortification spectra, experienced during their migraine attacks. It is solely through illustrations such as these that the uniform nature of many of these hallucinations has been demonstrated. As a result, it follows that there is likely to be a similarly uniform repertoire of processes that generate the hallucinations in the occipital cortex. The precise form of the zigzags that comprise the fortification spectrum, their shimmering appearance, and in particular the speed of the peripheral spread, all of which are entirely dependent on graphic display for their elucidation, enable conclusions to be reached about a number of the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms, including the involvement of spreading cortical depression, that likely occur. Illustration has been pivotal too in revealing uncommon and sometimes curious, if not bizarre, visual hallucinations, the forms of which suggest that extrastriate and temporal lobe involvement contributes to migraine aura in some instances. Illustration can also be valuable in differential diagnosis, depicting other forms of visual hallucination which result from a variety of non-migrainous causes. Illustration, particularly when made during the attack, provides an unusual, little used but powerful tool which uniquely allows the sufferer's subjective visual experiences to inform objective analysis. In turn, this analysis leads to insights into some of the cerebral disturbances which subserve migraine aura.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cortical Spreading Depression
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Hallucinations / etiology*
  • Hallucinations / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Medical Illustration*
  • Migraine with Aura / diagnosis
  • Migraine with Aura / physiopathology
  • Migraine with Aura / psychology*
  • Scotoma / pathology
  • Visual Perception